A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Thursday, 30 July 2020

Social Foundationalism in Epistemology

There is an ancient problem in philosophy known as Agrippa's Trilemma, which many parents will have encountered with inquisitive children. Ordinarily if one is asked how we can know something, we will appeal to underlying beliefs which support it. But this raises the question of why we should believe these underlying beliefs - and if there are even deeper underlying beliefs, why we should believe those. There are three responses which can be taken to this:

  • Infinitism: the idea that is possible for human knowledge to be founded upon an infinite regress of reasons, in much the same way that the earth is stacked upon an infinite column of tortoises.
  • Foundationalism: the idea that there are some beliefs which you just have to accept, and these form the foundation for other beliefs.
  • Coherentism: the idea that we operate on a "web of belief", and it doesn't matter if there is no ultimate ground to it if the beliefs are mutually supporting.
I am myself a determined coherentist: it's not that there are no beliefs which don't require further support, it's that once you've gone "I think, therefore I am" it's rather difficult to spin that up into much more. But the debate between foundationalists and coherentists continues, with the occasional "foundherentist" peacemaker like Susan Haack and the occasional infinist troll.

What strikes me, however, is how completely dominant coherentism is in the field of ethics. Under the name of "the method of reflective equilibrium" it is basically the method for trying to establish truth. We combine judgements from a range of levels - from practical judgements like "if a child is drowning in water next to them, you are morally obliged to rescue the child" to highly abstract judgements like "if states of the world A, B, and C are such that A is morally better than B, and B morally better than C, A is necessarily better than C" - to create general theories which aim to explain as much of the moral universe as possible. A couple of possibilities as to why this difference exists between fields:

  • Taking a foundationalist approach feels more respectable, and probably more likely to be successful, when the foundational judgements are highly general and widely applicable. Foundationalist epistemology, for example, would take mathematics to be foundational; whereas the most widely agreed judgements which we aim to expand from in ethics tend to be very practical and narrow in nature, e.g. "it is wrong to torture innocent children for one's own pleasure."
  • Ethics is generally accepted to be a social enterprise - it's about how we should behave, less about how I as an individual should behave. In particular, the existence of other moral agents is not generally taken to be in doubt. By comparison, epistemology is much more easily framed not as "what are the reasons for believing/doing X?" but "why should I believe X?"

I don't know that I particularly believe either of these. Maybe my initial observation is off, for that matter. If the second explanation is true, however, then given the rise in popularity of social epistemology in the last couple of decades, there's probably some mileage for a new defence of foundationalism - not that individuals should take certain beliefs as basic and unquestionable, but that societies should.

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