In his article, “Fundamental Problem with Foundationalism,” Dan Allen explains the basic concept of classical foundationalism and the problem of infinite regression. His article provides the context for this article, so I would suggest that if you have not read it or if you are unfamiliar with the terms classical foundationalism and infinite regression as they apply to epistemology, his discussion would be a good place to begin. In his article, Dan points out a problem that one might say is foundational to classical foundationalism:
How does one know when he or she has identified a foundational proposition?As Dan explains, simply stating that a proposition is true or foundational does not make it so. If that were the case, then I might just as well claim that a proposition positing the existence of Santa Claus is foundational. What we are concerned with here is a set of criteria that will allow us to identify whether or not a claim can be rightly called foundational or, to use more modern terminology, properly basic. From this point further, I will use the terms “foundational proposition” and “properly basic proposition” interchangably; and for the sake of this discussion, I will define a properly basic proposition as one which does not rely upon the truth of any other proposition for further justification. In other words, a properly basic proposition requires no other justification in order to demonstrate its truth. It is simply true, and universally recognized as such. Philosophers, logicians, and mathematicians have offered up a number of candidates for proper basicality. As Dan mentions in his article, the law of non-contradiction is a popular example. The law of identity and law of the excluded middle are some others. Some have suggested that sense experience, both internal and external, are properly basic. Regardless of the propositions that have been suggested, however, once a list has been compiled, one cannot help but wonder about the criteria by which they were chosen.
Many criteria have been suggested to help identify properly basic propositions. I am not going to discuss any specific criterion here, nor am I going to argue in favor of a particular set of criteria for identifying properly basic propositions. I am going to discuss a major problem with identifying that criteria in general. The following conversation gets pretty hairy, so take your time and wade through it carefully. I believe that it will be well worth your time and effort if you are interested in this conversation.
Suppose that I made the claim that any properly basic proposition should have properties X, Y, and Z. The prudent philosopher would probably ask, “How do you know that foundational propositions have properties X, Y, and Z?” In other words, where did I get that criteria? Did I just make it up? This is place where things get mighty sticky for the classical foundationalist.
For any given proposition, including one that attempts to state the criteria for proper basicality, that proposition is either properly basic or not. If it is not properly basic, then it requires justification. That justification must come in the form of other propositions, whose justification must come from further propositions, and so forth. As Dan stated, this chain of justification will either regress into infinity or it will terminate at some proposition or propositions that do not require any justification. This applys to any proposition that attempts to define the criteria for proper basicality as well. The claim that “Properly basic propositions are defined by characteristics X, Y, and Z” is a proposition, and it is either properly basic or not.
Here’s the rub:
If the proposition that defines proper basicality is not properly basic, then it must be justified by some other propositions, which in turn must be justified by other propositions, until the foundational propositions are reached. In order to know when we get to the foundational propositions, we must know what they look like. In order to know what they look like, we need the criteria for proper basicality, but the proposition that states the criteria for proper basicality is the very proposition that we are trying to establish! We don’t have the right to use the criteria until we know it is true, but if it is not properly basic, we will be forced into a situation where we must use our unestablished set of criteria in order to demonstrate the truth of our criteria. In other words, we would have to assume the truth of our criteria in order to identify the properly basic propositions that we need to establish the truth of our criteria. This is a major no, no. It is a serious logical fallacy that philosophers often refer to as begging the question.
As far as I am concerned, this entire process is a dead-end. I can only see one way for the foundationalist to get around this problem. If there is a criteria for proper basicality, then the criteria itself must be properly basic. In other words, the criteria for proper basicality must be identified in the absence of any criteria for proper basicality, and once identified, it must account for it’s own basicality. This is a very tall order indeed.