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Foundations of Belief

October 19, 2010

I am a realist. I think that there is a real world or truth out there (so am an ontological realist), and I think that it’s possible to make statements that correspond to that truth (epistemological realism). There is an immediate question to be asked of this position. How do I know that any statement I make corresponds?

An early attempt to answer this challenge was Foundationalism. This holds that a true statement is true because it builds on “basic beliefs”, statements that are self-evidently true or self-justifying. It was this idea that led to Descartes saying “I think, therefore I am”; he questioned all of his beliefs until the only thing that he was left with was the belief that because he had a mind there must correspond a being associated with that mind, an “I”.

This view was questioned by G. E. Moore in A Defence of Common Sense. Moore argues that there are statements that it just makes no sense to question. If I point to my had and say “This is a hand” and you disagree then it is hard to see what conversation about anatomy we can have. Similarly there may be statements in the rest of language that if we questioned we lose the ability to have a coherent discussion.

Wittgenstein goes further by saying that, as we dig down towards the basic beliefs, we hit bedrock. This bedrock is made up of statements that we hold as true because of the culture in which we are raised. If I point towards a chair and say “That is is chair” it makes no sense to question this, unless you have no prior concept of  a chair (or it’s a very strange chair…). We belong to a culture in which the idea of what it is to be a chair is an integral part of our language and belief systems.

There are other responses to Foundationalism. Verificationists hold that beliefs are true if it can be verified; that is, if we have some method of deciding that the statement is in fact true. Evidentialism links the truth of a statement to the evidence that we have for it.

Of course, we could respond by saying that all the above arguments rely on reason and we want to include revelation.

Natural Theology holds that revelation acts alongside reason in forming beliefs, with no contradiction between the two. We therefore see a rejection of the Platonist style a priori arguments favoured by Anselm in favour of the Aristotelian style arguments of Aquinas. This is the route favoured by Catholics. Reformed Epistemology goes further and says that revelation should take primacy over reason. It stems from Calvin and is still in evidence, particularly in America (I mentioned Plantinga in my last post).

These positions are hard to hold on to in a realist world. How do I know that my revelation is better than yours? I obviously can’t appeal to revelation, because you’ll just do the same and we’ll be forced to admit that our truths are relative to our culture. Without a mechanism for deciding between our truth claims we’re left in a bit of a muddle.

Relativism about truth is, I think, on the rise. There is a corresponding drop in the respect given to the position that there is a “truth” out there to be had. It isn’t really hard to see why. If reason corrodes belief in things that have no rational underpinning then the natural response is to retreat to a position that holds your belief above (or at least apart from) reason. Rather than rejecting belief the justification for it is changed. Dewi Phillips in Faith After Foundationalism:

There is, of course, the well-known academic strategy of ignoring anything that will upset the game being played… If theologians are confronted by wholesale attacks on the metaphysical views on which they think religious belief depends, they will search desperately for alternative metaphysical views.

Gareth Moore, a Dominican, says in Believing in God that theologians are “grammatical experts”, setting the grammar rather than a realist truth. He ends his book by saying that

People do not discover religious truths, they make them.

For the holder of a realist position this seems to be the only conclusion.

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