Saturday, May 19, 2007


I have noticed that I rarely post things of a philosophical nature. I'm always posting stuff about science. I think it's because science is very much in the public eye, recently, and philosophy is, well, not.

Well that all changes today! For my first trick, I'll discuss these happy little things called theories of justification and truth. The two theories are called foundationalism and coherentism. In a nuthshell, the theories both try to set out a system by which one can determine if the knowledge they have is either true or at least justified.

Both theories have been around for, well, as long as philosophy has been around. Which is, ummm, a really freaking long time. Foundationalism holds that all of our beliefs are based upon basic beliefs which need nothing else to explain why they are true. For example, I know A to be true because of B, and I know it true because of C, and I know it true because of D, and so on, and so forth. Foundationalists theorize that there must, eventually, be basic beliefs which are the "end" of the chain.

These basic beliefs must be self-justifying. They must be true/justified by them self and it must also be apparent. The most famous of these basic beliefs is Rene Descartes "I Think, Therefore I am." If you analyze that statement, it is undeniably true. It says nothing about you. You could be a giant brain in the Matrix. All it does is confirm that you exist, since you couldn't be thinking about this if you didn't exist. A perfect, basic belief. In foundationalism, truth and justification are intertwined. Since you have ultimate justification to believe something if it's true, finding something that is true is also finding justification.

The opposing view is that there are no basic beliefs, and that the chain of justification would actually never end. This isn't a very nice position to argue since it falls into what's called an infinite regress. Basically, that means your line of logic carries on ad infinitum, allowing no conclusion. In the world of philosophy, this is bad. We want conclusions. We yearn for them. We dream about them at night. So two options pop up, you can loop the logic chain around, e.g. A>B>C>D>A. That's circular logic and only works in religion. So our last choice is Coherentism.

Coherentism solves the infinite regress problem by linking beliefs together in a coherent web. A is not explained by B, instead, it is explained by a complex, interconnected system of beliefs B, C, D, E, F, and so on. As long as things "hang together" in the system of beliefs, one is justified in believing things to be true. Well, maybe not TRUE, since modern coherentism isn't too concerned with truth. Whereas Foundationalism has truth and justification linked, Coherentism splits up justification and truth into two, distinct pursuits, and all the better for it.

From this point on I shall be using my own views, as opposed to explanation. It may seem that foundationalism has something going for it, considering how famous Descartes little catch-phrase as become. Unfortunately for the foundationalists, that's the only basic belief they've found, thus far. Going on four hundred years later, you'd think they would have found something else.

Coherentism has taken on a view very similar to that of mathematical positivism. In it, we can never "know" what reality actually is, we can only develop theories that best explain the empirical data we have. This makes a lot of sense to me since it also jives with theories of cognitive psychology stating that we never "know" anything. We only know what our senses allow us to know, and that is not reality. Thus, truth is irrelevant. Since no matter what we think truth is, we could be a brain in the Matrix, and that truth is an illusion. As such, arguments dealing with the coherence theory of truth will be ignored, since I think truth can never be obtained, and trying to obtain it through coherence is, by its very nature, contradictory.

This modern coherentism has answered, I feel, almost all of its detractors sufficiently. Classic arguments are usually truth-centered, and do not involve justification. Such as, Bill can have a system of beliefs, "The sun is made from yogurt, grass is purple, and all dogs have eight legs." In coherentist theory, this is coherent and Bill is justified in believing all of those beliefs. They are obviously false, but that is no argument at all. It is false and incoherent in OUR system of beliefs, not Bill's. This is known as the isolation objection, and I think it's without merit. Bill is fully justified in his beliefs, since he only has three and none of them contradict.

How the system of beliefs "hangs" together has also been a point of some contention. I again see no problem. The system of belief hangs together based on contradiction. We are justified in believing something until another belief enters our system that either directly contradicts or implies a contradiction with other beliefs. If one contradictory belief coheres with more of the system than the other, it is taken as justified and the other belief is discarded or analyzed as unjustified. If both beliefs cohere equally well, we are at a dilemma, which requires more beliefs to enter the system to solve the problem.

Earlier, I mentioned that coherentism cannot be used to determine truth, and that's pretty accurate. The "Matrix" problem, once known as the "brain in a vat" problem before Neo came along, looms like a cloud over coherentism. This is known as skepticism. Don't confuse this with scientific skepticism, which simply calls for evidence to back up statements. Philosophical skepticism is, in a nutshell, the argument that statement "A" may not be true because we are actually in the Matrix. It was in an effort to escape this philosophical dead-end that Descartes formulated "I think, therefore I am." He was a foundationalist, but also a rationalist. He believed that ultimate truths could only be achieved through rational thought, and that no matter how deep a deception (The Matrix) goes, we can think our way out of it to attain truth.

Descartes was also an espouser of innate ideas, also known as a priori knowledge. It was through this that he believed that we could gain knowledge of truth. For example, he believed that God was innate to every human being. We are born with a readiness to know God. This innate knowledge is the basic tool we must use to escape skepticism. He would later use this to formulate one of the most universally derided statements of modern philosophy, otherwise known as the "Light of Nature" argument, since his own skeptical arguments ripped it apart. He was most likely doing this since he was desperate to re-prove the existence of God to himself.

Descartes failed to find truth, and he eventually fell into an argument that was eerily empiricist. He relied on what he saw, not what he deduced, which psychology, physics, and even cheap magic tricks show us, is totally unreliable. I say there is no truth, only coherent beliefs.

But, alas, these are rather old arguments. There is a brave new world of foundationalists vs. coherentists, the world of meta-beliefs. I will continue that discussion next post. I will also discuss my own views on truth, and theories of justification within specific systems.