The Chainless Mind Problematic: Foundationalism as an Indefensible Epistemology

The foundationalist model of epistemology is rather attractive in many respects primarily because it seems to be rooted deeply in two phenomena. First is the very prevalent human desire to provide a totalizing explanation for existence, which require some sort of justification. Even if one were to present a nihilistic account of existence, such an account would still require rationalization and would be subject to critique. Second is the desire for such an explanation to be infallible and absolute, which is a more recent development borne out of the Enlightenment. Foundationalism, also a product of the Enlightenment, seemingly provides the means to achieve both of these goals. If one could establish an infallible premise to begin with, one could certainly reason out an absolute and totalizing metanarrtive, which would also be infallible and universal. The presupposition in foundationalism, then, is that one has the ability to unchain one’s mind from all influence, to retreat into one’s own consciousness as a blank slate in order to establish the universal which will serve as the foundational premise. The development of metanarratives to explain existence is certainly a phenomenon necessary to the establishment of knowledge systems; however, such narratives need not be universalized to be valid, and thus, an indubitable foundation, if such a thing were possible, is not necessary to the development of a rational epistemology, and foundationalism cannot be justified.

The Enlightenment Foundationalist Debate

It will be first helpful to trace out the development of foundationalism through the Kantian Synthesis so that we may get a clear picture of the implications foundationalism has for us today, particularly for the Church. René Descartes, in his Meditations on First Philosophy, sets out to establish a universal foundation upon which he can build his own epistemology and metaphysics, and as a consequence, alters the course of Western thought until well into the twentieth century. Descartes begins the first meditation with a discussion of his doubts regarding what he thought he knew to be truth and that in order to actually find truth, he must throw out all that has even the slightest doubt cast upon it. He writes,

But, to this end it will not be necessary for me to show that the whole of these are false—a point, perhaps, which I shall never reach; but as even now my reason convinces me that I ought not the less carefully to withhold belief from what is not entirely certain and indubitable, than from what is manifestly false, it will be sufficient to justify the rejection of the whole if I find in each some ground for doubt.[1]

Descartes believes that he is able to doubt all sensory experience because he recognizes that his senses deceive him quite often and that it is his rationality that allows him to convert deceiving sensory data into something intelligible. Descartes believes then that the only thing he cannot doubt is that he is a thinking thing.[2] This becomes his indubitable foundation for building his epistemology.

David Hume’s foundationalist epistemology based purely on empirical evidence provides one of the most profound rebuttals to Descartes’ purely rational epistemology. Hume takes the rather bleak position that we cannot know anything at all outside of experience. In An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding he writes, “When it is asked, What is the nature of all our reasonings concerning matter of fact? the proper answer seems to be that they are founded on the relation of cause and effect [. . .] I say then, that, even after we have experience of the operations of cause and effect, our conclusions from that experience are not founded on reasoning, or any process of the understanding.”[3] For Hume, it is not possible to establish a necessary connection between any two events. In his analysis of causality, he lays out the observations that we can describe intelligibly when trying to describe causation. One can describe it in the following way:

a cause b

1) a occurs right before b

2) a is spatially right next to b

3) a is one of a kind A which is constantly followed by events of a kind B to which b belongs.

The only intelligible description of these events is to say that a and b are spatio-temporally contiguous and that this chain of events seems to repeat itself often. However, we can imagine and thus conceive that it be another way, and because of this, we cannot inductively reason that b must occur because a occurs. For Hume, all we have here is a sequence of perceptions.

This of course has major implications for foundationalism particularly with regard to science because it eliminates the intelligibility of any scientific claim made that addresses the cause and effect of a particular event—which is essentially every scientific claim. If such claims are no longer intelligible, then they cannot serve as indubitable foundations upon which to develop an epistemology. As for Descartes’ metaphysical separation of the mind and the body, Hume practically scoffs. Metaphysics for Hume is little more than erroneous speculation and wishful thinking because it is based purely upon reason and not experience. Descartes’ assertion that he is first a thinking thing is unintelligible for Hume because our experience gives us no good reason to believe that to be true. An intelligible statement for Hume is one that “can be distinctly conceived, implies no contradiction, and can never be proved false by any demonstrative argument or abstract reasoning a priori.”[4] For Hume, conclusions reached through inductive reasoning, which Descartes’ ultimately is, cannot stand as intelligible because there is no necessary connection between the premise and the conclusion.[5] As a consequence of Hume’s strong skepticism, he becomes distraught over the apparent fact that experience cannot provide him justification for establishing anything—an issue which later philosophers attempt to reconcile.

Following Hume, there is an important split in thought between the common sense realism of Thomas Reid and the German idealism of Immanuel Kant. Reid’s foundationalism consists of simply examining the facts that are laid out for every observer to see, or in other words, as the name of his school of thought suggests, relying on one’s common sense to discover truth. In relation to scripture, Reid criticizes those who believe the scriptures require interpretation. For Reid, one would know the facts and truth of scripture if one simply read and opened one’s eyes to the truth that was already plainly laid out. Reid calls for those who wish to know the truth to unchain their minds from their cultural influences. It is only through what Reid sees as establishing a completely objective foundation based solely upon experience can one ever build a legitimate epistemology.

Kant essentially saves foundationalism from Hume’s critique and in doing so, saves the discipline of science as well. Hume believed that the only knowledge one could have a priori is analytic, i.e. definitional or equative statements such as “All triangles have three sides.” If these statements, however, constitute the only indubitable knowledge, then a foundationalist epistemology can hardly be built on them since they do not contribute any new knowledge. Kant however argued that not all a priori knowledge is analytic. Theorems, such as the Pythagorean theorem, are in Kant’s view synthetic a priori knowledge because we do intuit such things but only after we experience their truth. In other words, once we see a few times that the Pythagorean theorem works, we intuit that all right angled triangles are subject to it. It would be impossible for us to measure every triangle, not only because there is an infinite number but also because precise measurement of irrational numbers is impossible. Hence, we intuit the “infallible” truth of the Pythagorean theorem and it behaves as though it were axiomatic.[6] Kant agrees with Hume that we cannot have knowledge of causes; however, based upon his observation that synthetic a priori knowledge exists, Kant argues that Science can establish a new foundation upon the perception of sequences rather than a sequence of perceptions, which further solidifies the scientific method as the cornerstone of the foundation of science.



Foundationalism in Self-contained Systems

Kant’s conclusion, however, leaves us in an interesting position. Synthetic a priori knowledge is very useful in describing phenomena in math and science. It saves us from having to attempt to literally exhaust all possibilities in order to prove that a theorem or law can serve as an indubitable foundation. However, both disciplines also recognize the possibility that someday such foundations could be undermined.

Euclidean geometry has had serious doubt cast upon it as a universal system since Einstein’s discovery that space and time are curved. The parallel postulate, for example, is not true in space-time geometry. We can say, then, that the parallel postulate may be assumed to be true in the closed system of Euclidean geometry, but nowhere else. This calls into question the validity of a strong foundationalism that requires a universal, indubitable foundation upon which to build an epistemology because even in a system as efficient and well organized as Euclidean geometry, certain truths, which once seemed universal may be proven to not be.

The foundationalist must ask himself: Is it possible to universalize any judgment that is synthetic rather than analytic even if the synthetic judgment is known a priori? The short answer must be no, and the easiest way to see that it is such is to look at both Descartes and Reid and examine some very important presuppositions inherent in their arguments and how they undermine foundationalism making it unjustifiable.

The Social Imaginary and the Role of Narrative

Alasdair MacIntyre describes the types of events such as the overthrow of Euclidean geometry by the curvature of spacetime as epistemological crises, and indeed, they provide moments of brief and perhaps sometimes prolonged panic. For MacIntyre, these moments need to be accounted for in developing an epistemology, and they point to the difficulty in utilizing the foundationalist model in doing so. MacIntyre writes of Cartesian doubt that,

It is to be contextless doubt. Hence also that tradition of philosophical teaching arises which presupposes that Cartesian doubts can be entertained by anyone at any place or time. But of course someone who really believed that he knew nothing would not even know how to begin on a course of radical doubt; for he would have no conception of what his task might be, of what it would be to settle his doubts and to acquire well-founded beliefs.[7]

Literary critic Stanley Fish puts it another way: “A chainless mind would be a mind not hostage to or fettered by any pre-conceptions, a mind that was free to go its own way. But how could you go any way if you are not anywhere, if you are not planted in some restricted location in relation to which the directions “here,” “there” and “elsewhere” have a sense?”[8] The primary error in foundationalism is that it fails to account for the fact that our consciousness is completely and unavoidably shaped by the social imaginary of our culture. Individuals have narratives, to which they adhere, which help them to describe their epistemology. Descartes had one. Hume, Reid, and Kant did as well, and they were very different from the narratives held by various people groups around the globe at that time and certainly different from the narratives held by people today. Their narratives even differed from each other in certain respects since they came from different nations and lived during different periods of time. I use the term fact above quite literally. As MacIntyre points out, one who is completely detached would have no basis upon which to begin his course. Descartes is perhaps on the right track when he writes, “What is there, then, that can be esteemed true? Perhaps this only, that there is absolutely nothing certain.”[9] However, this is only true in a foundationalist model.

MacIntyre also discusses David Hume’s distress at realizing that his skepticism has left him unable to trust any of his beliefs. Hume has set for himself such a high standard for his foundation that, “all beliefs founder equally.”[10] Hume, just like Descartes, never entertains the possibility that it is his own narrative, which allows him to come to this place of radical doubt. Without this narrative, Hume would not even know how to order his experience in the first place.

Reid’s call to unchain our minds and see the facts plainly laid out before us also becomes unintelligible. Stanley Fish writes this about observation: “To be sure, there is observation and observation can indeed serve to support or challenge hypotheses. But the act of observing can itself only take place within hypotheses (about the way the world is) that cannot be observation’s objects because it is within them that observation and reasoning occur.”[11] In other words, it is impossible for us to claim objectivity in observation not only because of our commitment to the narrative of the social imaginary as MacIntyre points out, but also because observation cannot comment on hypotheses themselves because observation is already constrained to them. The laws of gravity, as hypotheses, for instance cannot be observed objectively from some point outside of them since they already govern everything we know about physics.

Foundationalism as Self-refuting

Michael Peterson, in Reason & Religious Belief, points out another very important point regarding foundationalism that differs from MacIntyre’s approach involving individual consciousness being impacted strongly by narrative. Peterson puts it very plainly: “When we apply strong foundationalism to itself, it defeats itself—or, we may say, it self-destructs.”[12] The explanation of this is simple. Foundationalism requires an indubitable premise from which an epistemology may be built. This premise, by definition, must be known a priori. However, when we ask the question, “Is foundationalism itself indubitable a priori,” the answer is most certainly, no.

If we return to our foundationalists, we can easily see this error played out. Not only does Descartes doubt everything except the method of how to doubt and then how to proceed from that point, he also does not doubt the presupposition that an indubitable foundation is required. Hume makes the same error with different results. In his anguish at not finding a foundation among his experiences, he never stops to question why a foundation is even necessary. What experience could he base that assumption upon? He had none—it was his deep commitment to the narrative of philosophical method that told him the need for a foundation was a priori, though he had absolutely no justification for that belief.

Implications for Religion and Science

If foundationalism cannot be justified, what does that mean for religion? Surprisingly, the rejection of foundationalism has many positive implications. The debate between science and religion has been heated since the late 19th century. Questions of how religion will account for the discoveries of science have become a solid part of our culture. However, these questions arise primarily because of the presupposition that like science, religion must provide a strong, indubitable foundation in order to establish rational justification for belief.

This presupposition also presupposes something else though. Peterson writes, “But science as a total worldview—the idea that science can tell us everything there is to know about what reality consists of—enjoys no such overwhelming support. [. . .] To claim that strong support enjoyed by, say, the periodic table of the elements transfers over to scientific naturalism as a worldview is highly confused if not deliberately misleading.”[13] There is a rampant presupposition that science not only will provide all the answers but that this is somehow a default position in no need of justification because of individual, self-contained foundations such as the periodic table or the gravitational constant. MacIntyre points out that, “Scientific reason turns out to be subordinate to, and intelligible only in terms of, historical reason.”[14] Science is not simply an objective tool with which to discover facts neatly labeled for us in the real world. It can only be understood in terms of narrative.

The overwhelming presupposition that science not only is an objective, default position, but also that it can explain everything we experience seems extremely problematic for religion. There are two major problems with this, however. First, science and religion answer different questions entirely. Terry Eagleton writes, “For theology, science does not start far back enough—not in the sense that if fails to posit a Creator, but in the sense that it does not ask questions such as why there is anything in the first place, or why what we do have is actually intelligible to us.”[15] The Bible is not meant to make natural phenomenon intelligible to us in the way that science is. But it is the placing of religion within a foundationalist model of epistemology that makes the issues raised in the science-religion debate seem problematic. Science will always seemingly win on that front because there are built in to it self-contained foundations that remain constant until, as the scientific method allows, they are replaced with new foundations.

Religion, however, does not work this way. It’s core beliefs are supported by different kinds of evidence, not always empirical. Such beliefs are justified as long as they are supported by a variety of grounds and warrants that will most likely be a result of the social imaginary that the one holding the beliefs is a part of. To be entirely accurate, science really does not operate in a foundationalist epistemology either. The so-called “foundations” of self-contained systems really cannot stand up to the criteria of strong foundationalism. Furthermore, science is self-validating because the foundation of enquiry, the scientific method, cannot be called into question since we have no method by which to examine it. It is validated through the method itself.

A holistic approach to epistemology, such as that suggested by W.V.O. Quine, is a much more accurate way to describe the way that we develop our knowledge systems. We develop core beliefs that are supported by a wide variety of beliefs and knowledge that range from the social imaginary to experience to rational judgments. If we encounter new evidence, we may experience what MacIntyre calls an epistemological crisis, and our core beliefs may be replaced. This allows for both science and religion to coexist without one having to oust the other as a universal foundation for knowledge.

by Joel Harrison

Works Cited

Descartes, René. “Meditations on the First Philosophy.” 1641. Trans. John Veitch. The Rationalists. New York: Anchor Books, 1974. 99-175.

Eagleton, Terry. Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate. New Haven: Yale UP, 2009.

Fish, Stanley. “God Talk, Part 2.” The New York Times Online. 17 May 2009. <;.

Hume, David. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. 1748. The Empiricists. New York: Anchor Books, 1961. 307-430.

MacIntyre, Alasdair. “Epistemological Crises, Dramatic Narrative, and the Philosophy of Science.” The Monist. 60. 1977.

Peterson, Michael, et al. Reason & Religious Belief. New York: Oxford UP, 2009.

[1]. Descartes René, Meditations on First Philosophy, 112-3.

[2]. Descartes recognizes the possibility that everything he experiences could be deception; however, even in being deceived, one must be conscious of the something taking place even if that something is actually a deception (Ibid., 119).

[3]. Hume, David, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, 327-8.

[4]. Ibid., 330.

[5]. I say that Descartes’ conclusion is reached ultimately through inductive reasoning because he moves from the premise, “I think; therefore, I am” to the obvious assumption and conclusion that this is necessarily the case for everyone; otherwise, he could not be justified in using this premise as the foundation for his epistemology. However, for Hume, such a conclusion cannot be justified.

[6]. I place the word “infallible” in quotes above because, as we shall see, such synthetic a priori truths are not necessarily universal.

[7]. MacIntyre, Alasdair, “Epistemological Crises, Dramatic Narrative, and the Philosophy of Science”, 59.

[8]. Fish, Stanley, “God Talk, Part 2”, 1.

[9]. Descartes, René, Meditations on the First Philosophy, 118.

[10]. MacIntyre, Alasdair, “Epistemological Crises, Dramatic Narrative, and the Philosophy of Science”, 64.

[11]. Fish, Stanley, “God Talk, Part 2,” 1.

[12]. Peterson, Michael, Reason & Religious Belief, 127.

[13]. Peterson, Michael, Reason & Religious Belief, 57.

[14]. MacIntyre, Alasdair, “Epistemological Crises, Dramatic Narrative, and the Philosophy of Science”, 66.

[15]. Eagleton, Terry, Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate, 11.


2 thoughts on “The Chainless Mind Problematic: Foundationalism as an Indefensible Epistemology

  1. […] The Chainless Mind Problematic: Foundationalism as an Indefensible Epistemology […]

  2. […] which extends through both metaphysics and epistemology. I have made reference to and explained it elsewhere, but in short, Kant’s contribution made it possible for both philosophy and science to […]

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