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Three Arguments Against Foundationalism: Arbitrariness, Epistemic Regress, and Existential Support

From: Canadian Journal of Philosophy
Volume 36, Number 4, December 2006
pp. 535-564 | 10.1353/cjp.2007.0003

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

A particular belief of a person is basic just in case it is epistemically justified and it owes its justification to something other than her other beliefs or the interrelations of their contents; a person's belief is nonbasic just in case it is epistemically justified but not basic. Traditional Foundationalism says that, first, if a human being has a nonbasic belief, then, at bottom, it owes its justification to at least one basic belief, and second, there are basic beliefs. Call the second thesis Minimal Foundationalism. In this essay, we assess three arguments against Minimal Foundationalism which we find in recent work of Peter Klein and Ernest Sosa.

I Foundationalism and Arbitrariness

Peter Klein puts his case against Foundationalism succinctly as follows:

[F]oundationalism is unacceptable because it advocates accepting an arbitrary reason at the base, that is, a reason for which there are no further reasons making it even slightly better to accept than any of its contraries.

(Klein 1999, 297)

The argument suggested here is plain enough:

The Argument from Arbitrariness

  • If Foundationalism is true, then there are basic beliefs of the following kind: S's basic belief that p is justified although there are no further reasons that make it even slightly better that S believe p rather than any of p's contraries.
  • There can be no such beliefs.
  • So, Foundationalism is false. (1, 2)

A question arises: what sort of thing is a 'reason,' according to Klein? As it turns out, Klein uses 'reason' to refer both to beliefs, which are a certain sort of mental state, and to propositions, which are not. Let's not worry about which Klein meant and consider both options.

Suppose reasons are propositions. Then premise 1 reads:

  • 1a.  If Foundationalism is true, then there are basic beliefs of the following kind: S's basic belief that p is justified although there are no further propositions that make it even slightly better that S believes p rather than any of p's contraries.

Unfortunately, 1a is false. There are versions of Foundationalism according to which there are further propositions the truth of which make it (at least) slightly better that S believes p rather than one of its contraries, even if S's belief that p is basic and justified. To illustrate: suppose that Evan's (allegedly) basic belief that the ball is red owes its justification to the ball's looking red to him and not to any other beliefs of his. This supposition is compatible with a version of Foundationalism according to which Evan's belief owes its justification to his visual experience because, in part, these two propositions are true:

  1. When one's belief that a ball is red is caused in normal circumstances by the ball's looking red to one, it is very likely that the ball is red, much more likely than that the ball is yellow or blue, for example.
  2. Evan's belief that the ball is red was caused in normal circumstances by the ball's looking red to him.

    So, on this version of Foundationalism, there are some further propositions, namely (A) and (B), the truth of which makes it (at least) slightly better that Evan believes the ball is red rather than, say, yellow or blue. Other versions of Foundationalism have the resources to make the same point, mutatis mutandis. Indeed, it's difficult to think of one that lacks them; after all, each version of Foundationalism has some story to tell about how basic beliefs are justified and that story will consist of some propositions the truth of which would make it the case that for each basic belief that p, it is (at least) slightly better that the person who holds it believes that p rather than any of p's contraries.

    Perhaps Klein's line of thought will fare better if we take 'reasons' to refer to beliefs. In that case, premise 1 of The Argument from Arbitrariness reads:

    • 1b.  If Foundationalism is true, then there are basic beliefs of the following kind: S's basic belief that p is justified although there are no further beliefs that make it even slightly better that S believes...



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