Does Justifiable Belief Exist? (Reloaded)

[This post is part of a series that the Th.M. students at Western Seminary are doing this semester on understanding the relationship between philosophy and theology.]

It seems my first post (Does Justifiable Belief Exist?) misfired. This is a reworking of the same tale to achieved more clarity.

This post is a Christian response to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s article, “Epistemology.”  Epistemology is the study of human knowing.  Epistemology generally breaks down knowing into few different categories: knowing how to do something, knowing a person, knowing a place, and knowing propositions.  The Stanford article deals only with the knowledge of propositions.  All of the positions in the Stanford article agree (even the skeptics) that propositional knowledge exists.  Since they are in agreement on this point, their arguments are centered on the existence of justifiable belief, not belief itself.  This is my main concern for this post, do justifiable beliefs exist?  Traditionally justifiable beliefs are those ideas that cannot be false, cannot be doubted, and cannot be corrected.  Can humans have justifiable belief?

I’ll summarize the article in brief starting with Foundationalism, the idea that our justified beliefs (can’t be false, doubted, or corrected) rest upon basic beliefs.  Basic beliefs are justifiable beliefs that don’t need justification from other beliefs.  According to Foundationalism, “I think therefore I am,” is a basic belief.

Coherentism breaks down Foundationalism, fundamentally disagreeing with its premise.  According to Coherentism, all beliefs depend on other beliefs for justification; there are no self-justifying beliefs. To the Coherentist, justifiable beliefs are those beliefs that are held up by web of interconnected beliefs. Justifiable beliefs properly fit within the web, they must be included in a coherent system and cannot contradicts themselves or the web. (It is important to note the moderate [modern] versions of Foundationalism and Coherentism have moved away from a strict definition of justifiable beliefs and have since redefined themselves accordingly.  I’m sticking with the classical forms of these positions because they were concerned with a hard definition of justifiable belief – cannot be false, doubted, or corrected.)

Skeptics do not hold to justifiable belief. They attempt to prove justifiable belief doesn’t exist by claiming something fantastic like, “You can’t know that you have feet.”  They base this on the possibility of radical deception; someone could be in the matrix or in a dream world, etc. and at the same time have no way of knowing they were in such a state.  Since you can’t know you’re not in that situation, you can’t know whether or not you have feet.

The skeptics could not be beat on their own terms.   After the skeptics, the definition of knowing changed.  Contextual knowing and fallible (arbitrary) knowing do not hold to justifiable knowledge as defined in this article.   Find the full discussion here.  If you have trouble following all the terms and positions visit, Wikipedia has a nearly identical summary with accessible resources.

Within the confines of this conversation, I am a skeptic.  I do not believe humans can obtain justifiable knowledge through their experience with the world or with themselves.  I’ll add my critiques to Foundationalism and Coherentism to explain my point.  On the one hand, Foundationalism’s strongest thought, “I think therefore I exist,” cannot be build upon without a myriad of presupposition beliefs about what it means to exist or to think. Foundationalism’s founder Descartes built upon this idea and somehow came up with Catholic Christianity. Anyone else who builds upon this idea will come up with something different based upon their prior beliefs.  In addition, the phrase adds nothing to the epistemological conversation.  The conversation starts with the belief in propositional knowledge which requires a belief in the ability to think and a belief in our existence.  Therefore, Foundationalism’s foundational belief does not lead us to even one justifiable belief.  Coherentism, on the other hand, creates a web of interconnected ideas that do not conflict, but there is nothing to say the entire web is right or wrong.  There is nothing to ground the web into justifiable belief.  Further, one cannot point to the boundary of the web.  The web itself would have to be infinite, stretching out in all directions forever.  If there are no boundaries to the web, how could we know the web is attached to reality?

Humans cannot have justifiable belief about themselves or the existent world – through their experience with themselves and the world.  To state the obvious: galaxies, stars, planets, plants, animals and all physical elements can also have no justifiable beliefs about humans or the existent world.  If the physical world is all that exists, humanity has no possibility of justifiable belief.  If we are just talking about the physical world, I am a skeptic.  I, however, do not believe in the physical world alone.


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Posted on October 1, 2010, in Philosophical Theology and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 31 Comments.

  1. I am part way though the Stanford article now and just discovered that I cannot know whether I am actually experiencing things or if my brain has been removed by a mad scientist and put in a vat hooked to an evil supercomputer that is just simulating my experiences; that I may be (am?) actually Tim* and not in fact Tim.

    Now I am half expecting to be locked in a room and have my mouth disappear, left with nothing except a panicked silent moan. Or is the Matrix simply one more trick concocted by the evil supercomputer that simulates my reality to persuade me through some phychologically convoluted manner into believing that such a thing is actually preposeterous?

    How can I resolve this epistemological conundrum?

  2. Good question Tim! Here is another question: Does it matter?

    Let us take the evil scientist in the above scenario and replace him or her with God.

    If God has all our brains in vats in heaven inputting us all with dreams, does this change God’s expectation of us in any way? (We are supposed to believe and have faith.)

    Why is it so important for us to believe we have true knowledge and understanding of our metaphysical world? Do “un-civilized” tribal people have to have a correct understanding of their metaphysical world in order to believe in Christ’s sacrifice for them?

    I’m happy to doubt the understanding of my connection with physical reality. I’m not happy to doubt the understanding of my connection with spiritual reality.

    God originated the metaphysical world I stand on, originated the world of ideas I think upon, and originated the spiritual world I believe upon. To know the three worlds correctly, one must know the originator of the worlds.

    Since a sense (touch, hear, see, etc) connection with God is NOT necessary for relationship and understanding with God, the originator of all three worlds, neither do I need to have a sense connection with the metaphysical world or the world of ideas for accurate understanding of my relationship with them.

    : )

  3. I could just wiggle my finger and mimic Cratylus, take an Ambien, and enter my real world of ‘Total Recall’ but I can’t help but ask: “Can you justify your skepticism?”

    RE: “Humans cannot have justifiable belief about themselves or the existent world – through their experience with themselves and the world.”

    Dico: Would you take your newborn with you to the top of Multnomah Falls and take of leap of faith into the her veil of abyss to renounce “justifiable belief about yourself or the existent world?” I am willing to bet your life that some experience emerged within yourself and the world that you have experienced would militate against the leap.

    RE: “Since a sense (touch, hear, see, etc) connection with God is NOT necessary for relationship and understanding with God”

    Dico: Wouldn’t the lack of necessity for sense (touch, hear, see, etc) connection with God for relationship and understanding with God render the life narrative of Jesus rather superfluous 1 John 1:1-4?

  4. If God asked me to take my little son and sacrifice him on top of a mountain then I hope I would. Perhaps instead God would ask me to toss my baby off a waterfall. At that point, my understand of reality and my faith would conflict ( to say the least ). I’m no hero of the bible, but Abraham was. Perhaps there is something to taking your understanding of reality to another level.

    Were you there ( 1 John 1:1-4 ) ? I wasn’t.

    The fun part about skepticism is how easy it is to defend. You can just say… “Now, I don’t know about that!”

    • RE: “If God asked me to take my little son and sacrifice him”

      Dico: How can a skeptic who suggests a psychofactual split from corporeal experience claim to know know if God was asking her/him any-thing? Where would you get your narrative to constitute your understanding on “another level” separate from sensate encounters of something other? Your use of Abraham’s narrative is contradictory since you constructed the story from sight or sound or both. Further, you attached the story to ‘your experience’ of your little son, thence constructed meaning.

      Since your response is replete with the sensate, I am not convinced that your suggestion of skeptical narrative nonsense holds. See Bobby Grow’s critique if you are in need of a more lucid explanation of my query.

      RE: Were you there ( 1 John 1:1-4 ) ? I wasn’t.

      Dico: The horizon of “there” in the living symbols in the transcendent phenomena of ‘text’ through emergence (via the Spirit) of similar innate pre dispositions to categories of sense that John had, permit me to answer the first part of your question with a yes and no. Your assertion of “I wasn’t” suggests you might know if you were there in the sensate and is not compatible with the apparent Carneadian skepticism that you asserted in your initial post and in your answer.

      My point goes to Marc’s question in a sense. Although your assertion to epistemological skepticism seems warranted everything that to which you appealed, including the words mined by sight, is based upon the foundationalist presupposition, n’est pas (does it not)?

      Perhaps a transcendentally moderated epistemological realism might assuage such “dark origins” of un-knowing, what do you think?

  5. The bad part about skepticism is that it’s like acid, once it begins its process it is not easily stopped.

  6. Stephen, you seem to have a rather selective form of skepticism. Although you’re willing to be skeptical about the physical world and your connection with it, you seem rather confident of knowledge in other areas – particularly knowledge of the divine and spiritual realities. But, it’s not clear how you are able to do this. The arguments for skepticism apply equally well to all kinds of knowledge. If you have no grounds for knowing X, what grounds do you have for knowing Y?

  7. I notice that in neither discussion so far, no one has challenged Stephen’s rejection of foundationalism or coherentism. Do you agree with him that these are fundamentally flawed epistemologies? If not, why not?

  8. First off, I am really glad you re-posted Stephen. I was not following your first post at all and was completely lost in the language and the flow of your thought. In this post I can see more clearly your argument and for that I thank you for taking the time to write another blog post.

    On the second part, why Marc did you have to take all the points I was going to make. I was really wondering especially in Stephen’s defense of skepticism how he could understand the divine with such certainty. Wouldn’t a “belief” in the divine also have to be incorporated into skepticism and thus even a belief in divine would be skeptical?

    I was also wondering about foundationalism and corherentism…I know foundationalism lately has been attacked on all fronts but from a Christian perspective I wonder if it is applicable. Would our faith in God be considered a foundational belief to be built upon? I have more questions than answers concerning these epistemologies. So as of right now I am still trying to read and understand (thank you wikipedia). I will try and post again later after I have done more study.

  9. “Christian dogma, according to Kierkegaard, embodies paradoxes which are offensive to reason. The central paradox is the assertion that the eternal, infinite, transcendent God simultaneously became incarnated as a temporal, finite, human being (Jesus). There are two possible attitudes we can adopt to this assertion, viz. we can have faith, or we can take offense. What we cannot do, according to Kierkegaard, is believe by virtue of reason. If we choose faith we must suspend our reason in order to believe in something higher than reason. In fact we must believe by virtue of the absurd.” – Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s article on Søren Kierkegaard.

    Marc, I’m definitely still working on the rest! I have more thoughts on the matter, but I’m still working them out. I do appreciate Kierkegarrd’s “Leap to Faith” principle. I am confident in spiritual matters because I choose to be.

  10. I’m confused, is Stephen FitzMaurice a ThM student at Western?

  11. Stephen Fitz. said:

    Skeptics do not hold to justifiable belief. They attempt to prove justifiable belief doesn’t exist by claiming something fantastic like, “You can’t know that you have feet.” They base this on the possibility of radical deception; someone could be in the matrix or in a dream world, etc. and at the same time have no way of knowing they were in such a state. Since you can’t know you’re not in that situation, you can’t know whether or not you have feet.

    Yet, in order to posit that they may be in a state that they are unaware of (e.g. being deceived); they must first assume a prior foundational belief that allows them to adjudicate, objectively and universally, that they and all may be in a state of deception. Thus, like Kant, they must first assume what they intend to deny in order to assume it; in short this is petitio principii, or circular. Why should I believe it?

  12. All positions hold to propositional knowledge. You correctly imply that skeptics cannot build on this knowledge. The skeptics are not trying to build – they are are trying to show that no one can build.

    • Cratylus wiggles his finger in response.

    • There is a difference between being “critical” and being “skeptical.” A skeptic deconstructs — it operates out of a negative approach and attitude. A “critic” deconstructs — but with a positive attitude.

      Being a skeptic, philosophically and historically (like pyronic skepticism) — what you are describing — really is nothing more than cynicism couched, unfortunately in a non-realist epistemology; which itself is untenable.

      I disagree, I don’t think “skepticism” is tenable, or doing what you’re saying — it’s inevitable, in their “de-building” project that they are assuming and thus building a new epistemology that is based upon the objectification of the “self.” This is the same problem PoMo epistemology offers (problem for their approach, that is . . . it’s shallow and not worth the time for the “critic”). Like I said, it’s circular.

    • I wonder what you think, though, Stephen? 🙂

      I realize your writing here is part of a project you’re working on as a result of your degree you’re working on. And so I also realize that you’re involved in doing descriptive and exploratory work here, but I thought I would just try and challenge you to go deeper than you have thus far — at least. Maybe “bottom you out” sooner than later, and challenge you to the point that you abandon the idea that “skepticism” (as a method — which presupposes its own “positive” ground) is not a fruitful methodology.

      I’m not sure how much of your approach here is some tongue-in-cheek for the sake of probing your own and other’s thinking. Nevertheless, I thought I would chime in a little . . . you’re bringing out the “Fighting Fundy” in me ;-).

  13. I’m going to take what I believe to be your basic assumptions about God and play with them to form an argument.

    (Your basic assumptions)

    Before God created the world, He knew the future and all that would transpire. When God created the world, He brought everything into existence that exists and understood all of its potential in being and relationship. God can see from every perspective. He understands in full the experience of the rock, the person, the angel, and the cosmos. His knowledge of the present, past, and potential future is complete and without lack. God knows your thoughts before you think them.

    (I’m playing with them)

    God’s knowledge is so complete and total that no new thought is created by humanity. Humanity does not bring new thoughts into existence; humanity discovers thoughts God has already had. God is the sole and rightful possessor of all thought. Humanity may never own thoughts or possess thoughts anymore than they can claim possession of their own bodies and souls. Humanity is allowed to participate (at best) in the thoughts of God.

    (Your basic assumptions)

    God has rightful domain over the material world. Therefore, God can induce miracles and bend the material world to His own devising. If God wants to turn water into blood, it is God’s prerogative.

    (I’m playing with them)

    God has rightful domain over the world of ideas. Therefore, God can bend the world of ideas to His own devising. If God wants to make something false true, it is God’s prerogative.

    (My thoughts)

    If we are utterly dependent on God for obtaining our physical bodies and our souls, then we are also utterly dependent on God for obtaining our ideas – our epistemology. Only God has justifiable true belief. We are at His mercy to obtain it. He can choose to open our minds or shut them, or even alter the world of ideas itself. One of my friends keeps telling me this is very deterministic and I’m inclined to agree with him. I’m not sure how God incorporates free will into the totality of His sovereignty, but that is a discussion for an altogether different class.

    To recap, we are limited to our own perspective; God is able to know all the perspectives of all things at all times. God alone has justifiable true belief. If our epistemology is not centered on obtaining knowledge from God, we will fail. Therefore, I am a total skeptic to the human ability to know, human epistemology centered in knowledge of the physical world and in their own experience. As Marc mentioned, I have a particular sort of skepticism; I admit I’m not a true skeptic. I appreciate the usefulness of skepticism and its basic humility. (you forced my hand!)

    • Good, now come and read a couple of things I’ve posted on this, and you’ll be set:


      You’re in a perfect place for some TF Torrance healing ;-).

      Btw, you assumed that I’m sort of medieval nominalist (e.g. that I see a dichotomy between God’s immanent/ontological and economic natures — I don’t — who we see in Jesus (the God revealed) is who God is in His triune being and inner relations. I don’t think there is a voluntaristic God behind the back of Jesus who can be ‘different’ than who He is in Jesus (in other words He can’t make what is true false . . . that means, according to my perspective, that He could deny Himself). Actually I’m not sure how you saw all of that in what I said here, I don’t think I said enough for you to make the inferrences you did; but that’s okay, I’m glad that you’re skeptical or better “critical” of certain things.

      Your example of free-will and such. I think you probably need to define that further, and also, that if we ground such discussions in the person of Jesus Christ that we will have a more fruitful way forward in trying to understand an anthropology that honors the interesection of createdness and divinity. You’ll have to read more of Torrance to see what I’m talking about :-).

      • I’m definitely open to reading some good (new to me) thinkers on the subject. I was making free and wild assumptions about you Bobby for no good reason other than to have a conversation, or perhaps because turnabout is fair play.

        My point was this: God’s knowledge is so vastly beyond ours in every category, human skepticism towards their own ability to know is helpful.

      • Great, thank you, Stephen.

        Yeah, sorry, I presumed about you too; it’s this stupid 2-d blog medium that gets in the way of things 🙂 . When you said: I’m no hero of the bible, but Abraham was. That kind of threw me, I wasn’t sure where you were coming from.

        When you get the chance you should check out Torrance. In regards to the stuff you’re talking about here I think his: “The Ground and Grammar of Theology” would be excellent (also his “Theological Science” is good too).

        I agree with you, our knowledge of God is completely contingent upon His self-revelation in Jesus Christ. W/o his active grace towards us in Christ we would be miserable little nothings. I do think we need to be “critical”, I just don’t think “skepticism” as an epistemological approach is the way to go — but I now realize you weren’t or aren’t advocating that. Thanks again, Stephn . . . enjoy your studies with Marc, and the rest of the Western family 🙂 !

      • RE: Stephen’s sort of skepticism
        Dico (I say): It seems that without the illumination of the Spirit, you submit to an entombment within the bottleneck of your own subjectivity and the rest of us as well in our own subjective bottles as well. Is my assumption correct?

        RE: “God is able to know all the perspectives of all things at all times. ”

        Dico: If God is ‘able,’ does that not intimate God having ‘potential’ without actualization? If so, then you insinuate that God’s B/being is extensive and limited awaiting actualization, likened to humanity.

        Perhaps you mean to say: “God knows all the perspectives of all things at all times” or even better, YHWH’s excess transcends ‘knowing’ all the perspectives of all things at all times. (cf. Jean-Luc Marion: God without Being)

        I wonder if the narrative of Job 38:2ff might ‘give’ words pointing to God’s excess and lead to worship in certitude rather than epistemology that is justified.

        By this I mean epistemological justification is a way of saying being appropriate to discussion of human ratio in relationships to otherness under guidance of Divine light. Epistemological justification when imposed upon YHWH radically risks reducing YHWH’s otherness to the limits of human symbols when describing knowledge and time (chronos-tensed time).

  14. 1. Yes!
    2. Glad you picked up on that. I should have said, God knows all the perspectives of all things at all times. It is actualized.
    3. I didn’t understand this sentence:

    By this I mean epistemological justification is a way of saying being appropriate to discussion of human ratio in relationships to otherness under guidance of Divine light.

    I agreed completely with this sentence:
    Epistemological justification when imposed upon YHWH radically risks reducing YHWH’s otherness to the limits of human symbols when describing knowledge and time (chronos-tensed time).

    Thanks for sorting through my madness. : )

  15. I think I will go with the coherentism’s approach. In practice I find myself judging justified beliefs based on a network or web of beliefs. Instead of always questioning, I am willing to take some things at face value and move forward, albeit with some uncertainty. It would seem to me that the skeptic’s approach finds too much to challenge and thus comes to no justifiable conclusions.

  16. It seems like if we use skepticism as a method and not as a model it can be quite useful. As a model (in opposition to foundationalism and coherentism etc.) it provides no answers and only raises more questions. As a method, however, it brings a significant challenge to whatever epistemological model we hold. For the foundationalist it asks, Is your foundation really as stable as you think? To the choerentist it asks, Does your system cohere to reality? These challenges expose the inherent weaknesses in each system and push us to think more clearly and to ask why we have such a difficult time describing reality.
    It seems like Plantinga (if I read him right) uses skepticism as a method but not a model. He gives skepticism its due – we cannot have a hard foundationalism anymore – while also settings its boundary – we can still know things. This sounds like a good place to start.

  17. Well said Adam the was very helpful.

  18. I’m not so sure that skepticism can be used as a method/tool apart from the troubling epistemological presuppositions that make you want to avoid using it as a model. I think skepticism fails for much the same reason as classical foundationalism. Both seem to think that something needs to be indubitable/incorrigible for it to qualify as knowledge (i.e. these are the principles of justification for each). The only real difference is that they disagree about whether anything actually qualifies as knowledge based on these principles. So, even to use skepticism as a tool means applying these principles of epistemological justification to the things that you think you know. The problem is that these simply are not good standards for determining what qualifies as knowledge.

    By the way, I’d be inclined to make the same argument with respect to the “divine knowledge” discussion above. Do we really want to say that one can only “know” something if one knows it in exactly the same way that God does? Will that be our standard for knowing? If so, then we might as stop talking about being patient, loving, kind, good, etc., as well, since we can’t do any of these things like God does either. The point of the discussion is to understand what it means to know as a human. Absolute, perfect knowledge of all reality does not seem like a relevant (or helpful) standard in this discussion.

  19. I appreciate your thoughts Marc. This was a helpful experience for me. I agree completely, absolute perfect knowledge is not possible. I know this because I used the skeptic method on myself and realized classical foundation was useless. In the process of using skepticism I realized it could go no-where and add nothing to the conversation about human knowledge – except – if skepticism is useful, it is only to arrive at the very point you just made. Absolute perfect knowledge is impossible for humans. I learned this in the discussion, starting from a point of relative ignorance about the whole matter.

    I might have exhausted the usefulness of skepticism, but I’m not done questioning. I wonder if we will have perfect knowledge as humans in heaven. I wonder if human knowledge is at all possible without constant illumination at some level. I wonder if…

    • That sounds great, Stephen. I’m glad it’s been a good experience for you.

      I don’t think we’ll have perfect knowledge in the eschaton because that would require perfect knowledge of an infinite God, which should not be possible for finite beings. And actually, I don’t find the idea of perfect knowledge all that appealing anyway – at least, not if its the kind of perfection that does not allow for growth and development.

  20. I’m wondering what you think… Is “justifiable true belief” virtually the same as “perfect knowledge”?

    If not perfect knowledge in all areas from all perspectives (like God’s) what about perfect knowledge from a limited perspective (in heaven)?

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