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October 07, 2005

Foundationalism/coherentism

Scott put in a conditional request: To name my favorite argument for foundationalism, but only if I'm not a foundationalist. Luckily, I'm not a foundationalist.

This post is a brief introduction to the foundationalism/coherentism debate for non-epistemologists. I'll get into more detail in subsequent installments.

Epistemologists study knowledge: what it is, where it comes from, how we get it, how we transmit it, and so on. Knowledge is justified true belief.* You don't know something unless you've got good reasons for believing it. True beliefs generated by accident or by faulty reasoning aren't knowledge.

Most of our beliefs are justified by other beliefs. For example, I believe that koala bears eat eucalyptus leaves. What's my justification? Well, I believe that National Geographic wouldn't just make up a thing like that. How do I know they wouldn't? And so on, and so on.

Foundationalists and coherentists disagree about where this chain of "how do you know" questions will end. The stakes are high because if we can't deal with the regress satisfactorily, it will turn out that we don't know anything at all.

Foundationalists insist that there must be some beliefs that are directly or immediately justified, as opposed to being justified by inferences from other beliefs. They maintain these special non-inferentially beliefs form the foundation all knowledge and that all the rest of our beliefs are ultimately justified in relation to the foundational beliefs.

What sort of beliefs are at the foundation? Foundationalists differ on the details, but they agree that order to provide a firm foundation, these beliefs must be ones that we couldn't possibly be wrong about. Some philosophers place immediate experience at the base of the pyramid. Others emphasize our grasp of logical or mathematical principles.

My favorite argument for foundationalism is the argument from the regress. It does seem that justification must come to an end somewhere. If it doesn't, it's hard to see how we can have knowledge. The biggest challenge for foundationalism is not so much in identifying a few items of certain knowledge, but rather in showing how our everyday knowledge can be derived from these truths. So far, no one has been able to pull it off.

Coherentists argue that justification is more like a raft than a pyramid. They argue that our beliefs justified in relation to each other. On their view, a belief is justified if it is firmly enmeshed in a network of justifications. But what if your beliefs are totally consistent and totally wrong? At this point, coherentists usually remind us of how much foundationalism sucks. Sure, it would be nice to base all our knowledge on indubitable first principles, but it can't be done. Unless we want to embrace radical skepticism, we've got to rethink our preconceptions about what knowledge must be.


*That definition isn't quite right, but it's close enough.

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» Why such a small vessel? from Neurath's Boat
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» Foundations of lunacy from The Post-Normal Times - Perspectives on Environmental Science and Policy Decisions
Lindsay Beyerstein, aka, Majikthise, has an interesting post that provides an introduction to the foundationalism/coherentism debate for non-epistemologists, which I bring up because of relevance to science and policy issues. I am not an epistemologist... [Read More]

» Foundations of lunacy from The Post-Normal Times - Perspectives on Environmental Science and Policy Decisions
Lindsay Beyerstein, aka, Majikthise, has an interesting post that provides an introduction to the foundationalism/coherentism debate for non-epistemologists, which I bring up because of relevance to science and policy issues. I am not an epistemologist... [Read More]

Comments

"But what if your beliefs are totally consistent and totally wrong? At this point, coherentists usually remind us of how much foundationalism sucks. Sure, it would be nice to base all our knowledge on indubitable first principles, but it can't be done. Unless we want to embrace radical skepticism, we've got to rethink our preconceptions about what knowledge must be."

I don't see how foundationalism has any advantage here. What if your beliefs are entirely self-consistent and yet your foundations are completely wrong?

Myself, I'm a Bayesian. How does that fit into the coherentism/foundationalism categories? Probably just a mathematical way of stating the former.

Foundationalists' core beliefs are things that we either can't be wrong about (e.g., our immediate subjective experience), or propositions we can't coherently doubt (e.g., the fact that I exist as a thinking thing).

it's turtles all the way down.

(and what's wrong with embracing radical skepticism, by the way? C'mon in, the water's nice.)

(I kind of lean that way myself. Promise you won't tell?)

Hmm. Do foundationalists say that we actually, cognitively, have foundational beliefs? If that level of approximation doesn't too badly butcher the actual structure of our knowledge and belief networks, then the beliefs in our minds that could be described as foundational are almost certainly not things that we couldn't be wrong about.

But if foundationalists don't have any examples of non-trivial, coherent, foundational belief systems, it's really a moot point anyway, isn't it?

Ugh. I guess I'm just a hardened descriptivist (term.?). "How do humans actually reason?", I ask. Don't give me any of this philosophy, no thanks. :-)

"So far, no one has been able to pull it off."

Come on Lindsay. You could solve this if you tried. You just need to get from the cogito to a mathematics of probability. How hard is that?

" what's wrong with embracing radical skepticism, by the way?"

You believe that you can't rightly believe anything?

"You believe that you can't rightly believe anything?"

until you explain what the bottom turtle is standing on, I can't figure out what it means to "rightly believe" anything. I hold all sorts of beliefs, some of which (e.g. "the Braves can't hit in the postseason") have a fair amount of predictive value and some of which (e.g. "clients suck") have a 100% predictive value so far. I can't make sense of any claim that these beliefs somehow connect with a deeper reality, or operate independent of language or the rules of logic, and as far as I'm concerned, until I can figure out what it might mean for something to be "true" in that mysterious, deeper sense, I'm not going to commit to it.

(for "clients suck," I should probably substitute "the sun rises in the East" or "all men are mortal." Sorry, just a bit bitter to be stuck at work for the forseeable future)

Dan, as Lindsay says, for believers like me, the epistemological bottom turtle is certainty of existence. Or if you mean the ontological bottom, existence, or reality.

I'm a little confused here - presumably we can discover certain things which if they are not true have implications which are inconsistent with observation. These things we can pretty much take to the bank (ignoring the brain in a vat scenario so beloved of freshman psuedo-sophisticates). Does that make me a foundationalist? If so, what are the plausible alternatives? Are there things which have implications inconsistent with rigorous observation (e.g. double blind tests, carefully controlled experiments - you know, all that science stuff) which I am bound to take seriously if I am to maintain a commitment to the truth?

Maybe it's because I'm a scientist, but it seems to me that at some point you have to inject observation into the equation, which severely limits the set of coherent-but-false belief systems. The more observations you make, the more constricted the set of coherent belief systems that are compatible with your observations. At some point the set of coherent belief systems consistent with the totality of your observations is so constricted that it consists of basically a single belief system with only trivial variations.

"presumably we can discover certain things which if they are not true have implications which are inconsistent with observation"

1. I want to know things about triangles.
2. I get out my instruments and measure every triangle I can find.
3. It is always, always true that the sum of the interior angles of any triangle i can get ahold of to measure is exactly 180 degrees.
4. I adopt this as a rule. if it were not a rule, it would (per the quote above) have implications inconsistent with observation.
5. Some ass (Lobochevsky? sp??) comes along and says, well, imagine another set of rules where this is not so. Imagine (for instance) the geometry of a world of two dimensional beings who exist on the surface of a sphere. In their world, their instruments would show the sum of the interior angle of any triangle to be greater than 180 degrees, with sums increasing as over-all triangle size increases.
6. To which I say, so what? That's not our world. Observation proves it to be not our world. Our own senses tell us the way the world and its triangles are.
7. A few hundred years pass.
8. People start measuring triangles across vast distances of outer spaces, using stars as points. And it turns out, oops, the interior angles of those massive triangles do in fact add up to more than 180 degrees.

Yet we can prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that the sum of said angles is 180. Yet it's not. Yet it is, provided that one qcknowledges that what one took to be the (entire) universe was just an infinitesimal fraction of a much bigger place, where one's rules may not apply.

Lindsay, what's double-dog skepticism, or whatever you called it?

A reading group I'm in has been looking at the externalism/internalism debate, and the book we've been examining included an essay by Barry Stroud. We decided he was a grumpy old skeptic guy. And that most of us thought he was probably right.


As I think Gary is saying, a fallibilist approach in which we believe some things with very high probability, either because of direct observation, or coherence, but never claim certainty, seems to make most of the problems go away.

I suspect you can bolster it a bit further with a dose of pragmatism, along the lines of: I'm going to act as if my direct observations are reliable, and if I'm actually a brain in a vat, no harm done.

You can be a foundationalist without insisting on certainty 'at the bottom'. You just have to be a priori justified in certain foundational beliefs.

togolosh -

I don't think observations will do the work that you're hoping for. The problem is that the set of observations doesn't constrain the set of explanations.

To be more concrete, suppose that occasionalism (the view that no event occurs without a concurrent action by God through which God causes the event) were true. Then we could have all of the same observations, but their explanation would be the will of God rather than the operation of natural law.

To be more abstract, recall that an infinite number of curves may be drawn through any two points. Since we can think of observations as data points, and explanations as the curves which contain those data points, this means that the observations themselves can't fully determine the choice among theories.

Awww come on. Everyone knows that Kant solved these problems with transcendental idealism. right???

Americans: categorical imperative?
Germans: categorical imperative.

And lets face it, germans are far sexier than americans. So, Q.E.D.

Its turtles all the way down.

I thought this thing has been settled long time ago (or at least in term of calling out all the big holes)

1. Foundationalist. (have ya found the ultimate truth yet? Come back and talk if you find it.)

2. Coherenyists. (they are even in deeper dodo, since we have mathematical proof that any system cannot be coherent in itself)

quoting Godel paper:

http://home.ddc.net/ygg/etext/godel/godel3.htm

It is shown below that this is not the case, and that in both the systems mentioned there are in fact relatively simple problems in the theory of ordinary whole numbers4 which cannot be decided from the axioms. This situation is not due in some way to the special nature of the systems set up, but holds for a very extensive class of formal systems, including, in particular, all those arising from the addition of a finite number of axioms to the two systems mentioned,5 provided that thereby no false propositions of the kind described in footnote 4 become provable.

http://home.ddc.net/ygg/etext/godel/

--------

To summarize:

we are toast. keep trying. :D

Hmm. Do foundationalists say that we actually, cognitively, have foundational beliefs? If that level of approximation doesn't too badly butcher the actual structure of our knowledge and belief networks, then the beliefs in our minds that could be described as foundational are almost certainly not things that we couldn't be wrong about.

Posted by: pdf23ds | October 07, 2005 at 05:45 PM

This actually can be tested in an exercise:

If you can only transmit one sentence at the end of humanity to summarize its entire experiance so the next cycle can rebuild, what would it be?

Dan, as Lindsay says, for believers like me, the epistemological bottom turtle is certainty of existence. Or if you mean the ontological bottom, existence, or reality.

Posted by: Gary Sugar | October 07, 2005 at 08:31 PM

but Quantum mechanic says we cannot measure everything with certainty. for eg. I cannot calculate every atomic movements with absolute certainty and predict how universe will look like in the future. (eg. I cannot calculate all atoms in your brain and predict with great certainty how the reaction mixture will dictate your state of conciousness in....say 5 hours or a year from now)

We can only approximate the big stuff.

~~~ My favorite argument for foundationalism is the argument from the regress. It does seem that justification must come to an end somewhere. If it doesn't, it's hard to see how we can have knowledge. The biggest challenge for foundationalism is not so much in identifying a few items of certain knowledge, but rather in showing how our everyday knowledge can be derived from these truths. So far, no one has been able to pull it off.

Posted by Lindsay Beyerstein at 03:42 PM ~~~

I don't think that problem is trivial.

consider this. What if I say:

. <--- see that dot? it contains the entire universal truth. Too bad I forget the explanation, so yer on your own.

now, what if I say, that dot is the entire universe. The entire universe is the 'truth/reality' too bad I forgot the explanation, so yer on your own.

I think we know the item, it's just somebody forgot to bring along the manual, and we have serious problem interpreting it. (heck how to perceive it even)

Radical skepticism can't get off the ground. "All this could be .... (a dream, a hallucination, a clever trick, etc)," or so begins the skeptical line. But the skeptic is making a factual assertion here, no?

Calling yourself a skeptic just shifts the goal posts. Classical epistemologists set a very high standard for knowledge. It seems as if we seldom, if ever meet that standard. So, it turns out we don't have knowledge. That doesn't make it any less interesting to study justification, belief, reasoning, etc.

Squashed Lemon:

Goedel didn't show that systems can't be coherent, just that they can't be both coherent and complete (and that we can never know whether or not they're coherent). Since I don't expect to know everything anyway, I don't see that this is much of a problem...

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