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In Support of Secular Foundationalism

by Francois Tremblay



Like a lot of other issues related to strong-atheism, foundationalism is under fire from both skeptics and theologians. Skeptics claim that foundationalism is impossible, and theologians claim that secular foundationalism is incomplete. This is basically the same pattern that we observe in other issues such as sense perception, knowledge, and epistemic issues in general.

To properly answer these objections, we must first understand why foundationalism is important, and what a rational, secular foundationalism consists of.

Foundationalism is the position that we need foundations for our use of rational thinking and methods. Without such foundations, there would be no basis for our reasoning, nothing to deduce it from. Thus all statements of knowledge would be, at best, arbitrary without some foundation to ground them in reality.

Another position that competes with foundationalism is coherentism, the position that holding a coherent system of premises is sufficient for reasoning. Coherentism is beyond the topic of this article, but I can point out that it is merely a pragmatic concession to skepticism. Having a coherent system of premises is not sufficient to ensure that those premises are valid. Pragmatists usually reply that our premises “work” well enough for our purposes, but without epistemic standards, they have no grounds to point out whether the premises actually do “work” or not, except by circularity.

From the Objectivist perspective, the foundations on which human cognition is based are called axioms. An axiom has three properties:

  1. Irreducible. If it was reducible to other concepts, then those concepts would be closer to the foundation.
  2. Self-evident and implicit in all acts of cognition. If it is not self-evident, then it must be deduced from concepts which would be closer to the foundation.
  1. Undeniable without direct contradiction. This is a corollary of point 2, since any disproof includes many acts of cognition. Thus any disproof would implicitly confirm the axiom.

    Although there have been other candidates for axiomicity, there are three axioms that everyone can agree on:

    • Existence—the fact that something is. Whatever we perceive, we know it exists, otherwise we would not perceive it. We also exist, otherwise we could not perceive anything. To deny the axiom of existence demands a disproof that exists and to ground that disproof on existing facts.
    • Identity—the fact that existants has a specific nature, which can be defined as a set of attributes. This is a corollary of existence. Whatever we perceive that exists out there, we know that it has a specific nature, otherwise we could not perceive it. Likewise, we perceive that our own consciousness has a specific nature. To deny the axiom of identity demands a disproof with a specific nature.
  • Consciousness—the fact that we perceive. Whatever we perceive, our own existence or the existence of things around us, we know that we perceive it. To deny the axiom of consciousness demands that the individual perceive it and formulate a disproof based on perceived facts.

    As you can see, the axioms are all inter-related. And this is necessarily so, since the axioms are all necessary for all acts of cognition, and therefore necessarily coexist. They are also not specific, as they are fundamental facts. Finding what things are in nature is the task of science. Metaphysics tells us what it is that we are trying to find: science finds those things.

    Some other candidates that have been proposed as axioms are the three laws of logic, volition and sense perception.

     

    Skeptics argue against foundationalism on the grounds that its axioms are as uncertain as any non-foundational proposition. The basic reasoning goes like this:

    1. Empirical statements are in need of validation, and that is why we need foundationalism.
    2. But the foundational concepts or propositions are themselves validated empirically.
  1. Therefore foundationalism does not solve the problem.

    There are two problems with this argument. The most obvious problem is that it simply assumes that all empirical statements are reducible, something which is not obvious at all. As we have seen, the three axioms are empirical statements, but they are also irreducible. And for good reason: every act of cognition demands consciousness, and therefore by extension sense perception. Sense perception itself is validated by objectivity, but it is part of the axiom of consciousness. As such, to demand a foundation for cognition without consciousness is like asking to build a foundation to a house without building materials.

    The second is more subtle, but cannot be understated. There is an equivocation in the argument between the deductive structure of cognition and how we gain knowledge about the statements that compose it. The deductive structure is the relation between concepts as we know them, but we gain knowledge of those relations in specific epistemic ways.

    The most obvious proof that these are different processes is that we acquire knowledge all the time without conscious awareness of the axioms – the axioms are necessary prerequisites but do not have to be part of the epistemic process, since reason already encompasses their prerequisite nature in the epistemic process.

    Coupled with making the contradiction clearer, in that it demands non-empirical validation by virtue of empiricism being assumed insufficient, we can see the equivocation by contrasting two different versions of premise 2.

  2. Version 1—deductive structure
    1. Empirical statements are in need of non-empirical validation, and that is why we need foundationalism.
    1. But the proposed foundational concepts or propositions are reducible to empiricism.
    2. Version 2—epistemic process
    3. Empirical statements must be supported by non-empirical means, and that is why we need foundationalism.
  1. But the foundational concepts or propositions are found through the use of the senses.

    By making this clear distinction, we find that the equivocation is gone. Version 1 of the argument is clearly false, since the axioms are irreducible and empiricism is based on them, and version 2 is clearly false since empirical statements must not, and cannot, be supported by non-empirical means, or the axioms for that matter. Our empirical statements may require the use of statements outside of the act of cognition, but these statements are empirical.

    For instance, the statement “the wall is white” relies on our knowledge of the concept “wall” and “white”, as well as our knowledge about the context of that perception. If the wall is cast in shadow, for instance, we know that shadows darken colours and therefore can compensate accordingly. The axioms do not participate actively in that line of reasoning – I do not need to remind myself of them, insofar as I am using rational methods, and that the part of the axioms which is a prerequisite for reasoning is contained within them.

    As I already pointed out, sense perception is established as a rational method by the objectivity of reality and the axiom of consciousness. I am not going to give a deductive justification for the infallibility of the senses, since I have already discussed this in my article ‘The Infallibility of Sense Perception’.

     

    Theological objections to secular foundationalism are less subtle. They usually consist of accepting foundationalism but claiming that it is incomplete: that it demands a god as its focal point. It may be the case that we all accept these axioms, the theologian would say, but they could not exist without a god to create them. They usually express this in this way, although some more sophisticated arguments use things such as the “axiom of revelation” -”God is the author of the Bible”—debated on the Trinity Foundation web site.

    However, God, to use the Christian formulation, is not axiomatic. Coming back to our criteria again:

    1. Is God irreducible? No, since the concept can be reduced to “consciousness without identity”.
    2. Is God self-evident and implicit in all acts of cognition? No. Even if God did exist, the fact that there is something that has an identity would be self-evident, but not its specific nature as God.
  1. Is God undeniable without direct contradiction? No, there is no concept being stolen by stating that “God does not exist”. While the statement may be true or false, it does not entail any direct contradiction.

    The “axiom of revelation” is likewise deficient in all three criteria. It is certainly not self-evident or undeniable: it is just as acceptable that the Bible was authored by humans, or that the Bible came to exist completely randomly. While the Bible may or may not have been written by God, the proposition is certainly not any more self-evident or undeniable than these other propositions. The question of the authorship of a book is a scientific question, and cannot in any way be justified as axiomatic.

    Furthermore, we may note that the question of God cannot be dissociated from the axioms. While the theologian may assert that God is prior to existence, identity and consciousness, such statements are literally meaningless, since existence, identity and consciousness are implicit in all acts of cognition. If we are to speak at all of the theistic worldview, we must whole-heartedly endorse secular foundationalism, but doing so pushes God away from foundationalism and into the realm of ontology.

    Last updated: January 1, 2005