Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Argument for foundationalism in epistemology

To: Francis M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Argument for foundationalism in epistemology
Date: 14 October 2005 09:59

Dear Frank,

Thank you for your email of 2 October, with your essay for the University of London Epistemology module, in response to the question, ''Justification must stop somewhere. So knowledge must have a foundation.' Discuss.'

First off, this is the best thing you have ever written for me.

It also occurs to me that the judgement I have just made - which I would without hesitation claim to be something I *know* - would make a good example to start from.

Naturally, you want to know why this is the best essay you have written for me. And I will give you some reasons below why I think it is such a good essay. But why is it the best? If you asked me to list all the essays you have written for me, I would not do very well. In fact, at this moment, I can remember more or less clearly the previous essay, but that's all.

In that case, how can I possibly regard myself as justified in making the statement that I made?

My answer: this is something I know without justification, like most of the things I know. For example, I know that the scientists who have been trotted out by the US government to justify their claim that there is no clear evidence of global warming are lying snakes. I know that my wife loves me. I know that today will not be like yesterday, when I couldn't write a single letter and just sat staring out of the window (something which happens to me regularly, but unpredictably).

When I say, 'I know', I mean not just that I feel a subjective sense of certainty, but in addition I am putting myself forward as someone you can trust as a source of information. That, I would argue, is the point of the concept of 'knowledge'. That is why we are interested in whether someone knows that something is the case or only believes it.

In the case of judging your essay, I have a 'chalk board' in my head for each of my students. I couldn't tell you what exactly was on the chalk board. It is just my sense of 'where we are' in the dialogue, how much my student has progressed, whether the latest piece of work comes up to the expected standard or not, and so on. I am talking about the sense of judgement which is essential for the work that I do.

- Enough about that. You get the drift.

You have done an admirable job of 'questioning the question'. However, one question you didn't raise (because the wording of the question cleverly deflected it) is whether knowledge indeed requires justification. As you would gather, my view is that it does not. We are naturally constructed as acquirers of knowledge. 'Belief' is the odd case, the case where something goes wrong in the smooth process of knowledge acquisition.

How can there be so much argument about so many things, if that is the case? Because things go wrong fairly often - for a variety of interesting reasons.

This is the point that Descartes fastens on. There is so much disagreement about so many things, he says, that the only way to sort things out is to chuck out everything and start again. But how plausible is that claim, really?

Look at what Descartes does. The only thing I know is that I exist. Then he discovers that he has this idea of God. (Etc. etc.) Therefore God exists. But God is not a deceiver. He's constructed us in such a way that if we use our powers of reason correctly, we will acquire knowledge.

But that is *just* what all the people who were arguing thought they were doing!

The logic of your essay is impeccable. It was very clear, at each stage, what claim was being examined and the assumptions that it was based on. Also your 'hamster' story was an excellent way to set up the problem.

In principle, you convinced me about the strengths and weaknesses of the 'harder' take vs the 'softer' take (although I couldn't work out the point of the Adam and Eve bunnies example). I also got the point, in principle, about the difference between a 'small' foundation and a 'large' one.

However, in the latter case, the arguments you used to justify your conclusions were not wholly convincing. As I have tried to show, Descartes actually has a beautifully simple way to justify the 'enormous number' of non-foundational beliefs, provided that you give him 'I exist' and God. You obscure the issue when you say that proving God is 'problematic'. Surely, the point is that if you've got God and I, that is just two propositions from which *all* the rest of our knowledge follows.

In the case of empiricism of the classic Russell or Ayer variety (e.g. Ayer 'Foundations of Empirical Knowledge') there is a massive (I would argue insoluble) problem of how you move from sense data to statements about external objects. On the other hand, if we are talking about common or garden 'perceptual beliefs', like G.E. Moore's 'Here is a hand, here is another hand, here is a tree' etc. - perhaps enhanced with various recognized forms of 'intuitive knowledge' - then it does seem almost truistic to say that ultimately questions of knowledge come back to these 'basic' judgements. The problem is not that the basic judgements are difficult to defend as a class. (We are not worried here about radical scepticism of the Matrix variety.) It is rather a doubt about the point of the exercise. Why bother? what does it show?

I can strongly recommend Wittgenstein's 'On Certainty' on the topic of 'foundational' beliefs generally. I think that you would find that book very stimulating.

Not much else to say. I liked our account of Audi which was very clear and instructive. No real disagreements there.

All the best,

Geoffrey