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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.

Does Justifiable Belief Exist?

[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.]

Epistemology is the branch of philosophy concerned with humanity’s inability to know. At least, this is my sarcastic conclusion after a brief educational survey of epistemology covered in Stanford’s encyclopedia of philosophy.  Actually epistemology covers a few different ways of knowing: knowing how to do something, knowing a person, knowing a place, or knowing propositions.  The Stanford article deals only with the knowledge of propositions.

I’ll summarize in brief starting with Foundationalism, the idea that our justified beliefs (can’t be false, doubted, or corrected) rest upon basic beliefs.  Basic beliefs don’t need justification from other beliefs. Coherentism disagrees, stating that every belief receives its evidence from other beliefs.  For instance, “I think therefore I am,” presupposes a belief that I think and a belief that I could exist.  Or, “I perceived the chair is yellow,” presupposes a belief in the existence of a chair, the belief in a personal ability to perceived, and the belief in the concept of yellow.  Coherentism is critiqued because one can never arrive at a belief; there is an infinite series of beliefs before that belief.  Skeptics jump all the way in and claim 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, or similarly disembodied and at the same time being in the situation of radical deception would 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.  In order to defeat the skeptics, the definition of knowing underwent changes.  Contextual knowing and fallible knowing are put forth as potential skeptic killers.   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.

Simply put, I’m a skeptic.  I found all the other positions too vulnerable to devastating critique.  Foundationalism’s strongest thought, “I think therefore I exist,” is perceptual knowledge based on existence can only be understood by appealing to someone’s perception of their own existence.   If we all believe that we exist, but we could all be wrong.  If no one existed, no one would know.  If we base our knowledge of existing on our perceived existence all we are left with is perceived existence not justifiable belief (can’t be false, doubted, or corrected).

Coherentism finds the truth but can’t accept it.  I believe Coherentism discovers the true reason why justifiable belief doesn’t exist, because belief is based upon belief to an infinite or at least unknowable/undiscoverable degree.  Coherentism wants to build justifiable belief on a web of interconnected ideas, only they missed the web and fell into a bottomless chasm.

Contextual knowing, in my mind, changes the whole topic of discussion.  We take the problem of the existence of justifiable belief (can’t be false, doubted, or corrected) as a universal human question dealing with propositional knowledge and instead ask, “Can we have justifiable belief in a smaller group of humans controlled by selective ignorance?”  In a group of similarly ignorant and mentally disabled patients there might be a belief that can’t be proven false or doubted within the same group.  However, that same belief has the possibility of being corrected.  Either way, we are no longer talking about universal human knowing; we are discussing group knowledge.  This group knowledge is only justifiable belief in propositional knowledge if it isn’t challenged.  I find this view ignores the fact that we live in the age of world-wide communication and information.  An argument starting with ignorance and ending with a positive result is a poor argument indeed.

Fallible knowledge is also not a response to the same question.  Fallible agrees with the skeptics, in so far as they agree infallible knowledge is impossible.  This is just another way of saying justifiable belief does not exist, but belief does exist.  They seek to have justified beliefs based on knowledge’s inability to be justified.  To believe in fallible knowledge is to believe in nothing more than the usefulness of belief itself.

All of the positions agree (even the skeptics) that propositional knowledge exists.  Since they are in agreement on this point, their arguments (in my mind) are centered on the existence of justifiable belief, not belief itself.  Can humans have justifiable belief?  I say no.  I say no with a caveat.  Humans cannot have justifiable belief about themselves or the existent world.  Galaxies, stars, planets, plants, animals and all physical elements can also have no justifiable beliefs about humans or the existent world.  If these things were all that existed, humans would have no possibility of justifiable belief.  I however, do not believe the above things mentioned are all that exist.  (I’m leaving myself an opening for later.)  Is your belief justifiable?

Flotsam and jetsam (9/10)