In philosophy, there are many ways in which beliefs can be justified, and thus classified as knowledge. All are met with scepticism, which are arguments against the strength of these methods. These scepticisms, if not properly addressed, can make certain justifications seem inadequate, and therefore call into question the classification of beliefs as knowledge. One such method of inadequate justification is known as foundationalism, which has not properly dealt with the scepticisms it faces.
Foundationalism uses the idea that all knowledge is based on what are known as self-evident first principles or basic beliefs. These principles are true, sufficient to support other truths, and clear and distinct. They are non-inferential (are not in relation to anything else) and are justified non-inferentially (not justified by anything else, or self-justified). They form the basis for all knowledge and all non-basic beliefs are inferred from them (Week 2, Reading 3, 99). Foundational justification works similar to a chain, where justification is non-reciprocal (belief A can either justify belief B or be justified by belief B, but not both).
The Regress Problem is one of the major scepticisms of foundationalism. The problem is as follows: when justifying knowledge, the requirement for justification is infinite, and so there is an unending requirement for justification (Week 2, Reading 3, 105). This means that justification would be impossible to achieve, because whenever a justification is made a new question or requirement immediately surfaces – resulting in an infinite regress or the infinite necessity to justify beliefs. Foundationalists believe that they have a solution to this problem. They state, that if a belief (A) is justified by another belief (B), wherein the other belief (B) is foundational or non-inferential (therefore is a basic belief), no further justification is required (Week 2, Reading 3, 107). This means that every justified belief is either a basic belief itself, or its chain of justification eventually ends with a basic belief. This method, in theory, terminates the infinite regress of justification, and so effectively stops the Regress Problem. It relies on the fact that the regress is linear (similar to a chain, where a belief A is connected to a belief B, which is connected to a belief C, and so on) and that there is a final, basic belief that is without a doubt self-justified. All beliefs receive justification in a linear fashion, until they reach a final, properly basic belief.
The major criticism with this response to the Regress Problem is that it declares a belief to be justified in an inadequate way. The criticism uses the Epistemic Ascent Argument, which states the following: if an empirical belief (C) is properly basic, then it does not need any further justification. It does not need further justification because it is very likely to be true, and beliefs that are very likely to be true do not need to be justified (Week 2, Reading 3, 108). The problem with this argument is that for belief (C) to be basic, it must depend on at least one other empirical belief (which is the belief that highly true beliefs do not need further justification). Since it requires another belief, it is in fact a non-basic belief. This argument is powerful, as it shows that the response foundationalism gives to one of its major scepticisms contradicts the foundationalist definition of a basic belief. It also questions the idea of properly empirical beliefs, which brings forth the question of whether or not foundationalism can truly justify beliefs regarding the external world. This shows that foundationalism does not address the Regress Problem properly and can be considered somewhat inadequate – as it cannot counter one of its most important scepticisms.
A second scepticism, built from the Epistemic Ascent Argument, attempts to prove that there are, in fact, no empirical beliefs that can be properly basic. This scepticism states that in foundationalism, basic empirical beliefs must be both epistemically justified and must be justified so that they do not require justification from any other empirical beliefs. For these beliefs to be epistemically justified, they require a reason to be considered true – such as the fact that they are highly likely. In turn, the individual doing the justifying must be in possession of that reason. The only way for that individual to be in possession of the reason is to believe that the reason is true, with premises justifying it. The problem with this is that the premises supporting this empirical belief cannot be entirely a priori, and so at least one premise must be empirical. In other words, a basic empirical belief must be justified by another empirical belief, which contradicts the definition of a proper basic belief altogether (Week 2, Reading 3, 108). Much like the argument against the foundationalist response to the Regress Problem, this scepticism shows that properly empiric basic beliefs are not possible. This lack of properly empirical basic beliefs makes it impossible for foundationalism to justify beliefs regarding the external world, and as such makes it an inadequate method with which to justify knowledge.
There are two responses foundationalism gives in counter: the externalist response and the internalist response. The externalist response rejects the idea that the individual must be in possession of the reasoning behind why a basic belief is basic. Externalists argue that as long as the belief is generated in a reliable way, the individual who holds that belief does not need to explain why they hold it (Week 2, Reading 3, 109). The externalist response itself can be seen as inadequate, as it does not explain a reliable process for forming a basic belief, or specify the necessary conditions for a reliable process to occur. For this reason it is quite vague, and does not effectively counter the criticism above. The internalist response, on the other hand, agrees that the individual doing the justifying must have possession of the correct reasoning behind the justification to a reasonable extent. However, they argue that empirically basic beliefs are self-evident, and so require no premises to justify (Week 2, Reading 3, 110). This response, too, can be seen as inadequate – as the idea of self-evident knowledge can be seen as incorrect. The response does not make the distinction between sense perceptions and basic empirical knowledge, and so does not take into account the fact that sense perception, although necessary to gain empirical knowledge, is not knowledge itself. For this reason, the internalist response, as well, does not affectively counter the criticism. As foundationalists cannot effectively counter this anti-foundationalist argument, the scepticism effectively proves that foundationalism is an inadequate way to justify knowledge, because it cannot provide any justified knowledge of the external world since empirical basic beliefs are impossible.
There are also two main categories of foundationalism, which in turn have their own scepticisms. The first category is classical foundationalism. This also referred to as strong foundationalism, since it demands that all basic knowledge must be infallible (incapable of failure or any kind of error), incorrigible (true simply by virtue of being), and self-evident (Week 2, Reading 3, 101). In this version of foundationalism, empirical beliefs can be basic if indubitable or self-evident to the senses (Week 2, Reading 3, 103).
The most prominent critic of classical foundationalism focuses on its definition of basic beliefs. The requirements of infallibility, self-evidence, and incorrigibleness mean that there is very little knowledge available that can be considered properly basic (Week 2, Reading 3, 107). For this reason, there are very few beliefs by which other beliefs can be properly justified. These requirements do not produce a practical foundation for knowledge, and do not yield a substantial amount of inferred knowledge or justified belief. In reality, these requirements result in scepticisms towards the external world, perceptions, memory beliefs, other minds, etc. For these reasons, it can be seen that classical foundationalism is not an adequate method with which knowledge can be justified, as it actually produces more scepticism than it counters.
The second category is contemporary foundationalism. This moderate foundationalism removes the requirement that all basic truths be infallible, and has allowed the idea that proper basicality is determined by the individual (i.e. whether or not a truth is basic is based on your own personal point of view). In this version of foundationalism, any basic beliefs can be proven false, and there are only some self-evident and incorrigible truths (such as simple mathematics, truths of logic, and the cogita: “I think, therefore I am”) (Week 2, Reading 3, 104). This version of foundationalism does not allow empirical beliefs to be considered self-evident and incorrigible, as they are susceptible to too much possible doubt (Week 2, Reading 3, 105).
The most prominent critic of contemporary foundationalism focuses on the justification resulting from the method. As this form of foundationalism compromises the strength of the basic knowledge (as it no longer has to be infallible, self-evident, and incorrigible), it can be said that the resulting justification is no longer as definite or sturdy as it should be (Week 2, Reading 3, 107). As the basic beliefs are now subject to doubt, the non-basic beliefs justified by them are therefore also subject to doubt, resulting in weak beliefs. The few self-evident and incorrigible truths (such as mathematics) that could be considered adequate enough do not provide a large enough base with which beliefs can be based. Furthermore, the fact that empirical beliefs are not self-evident and incorrigible means that there cannot possibly be any infallible knowledge of the external world. For these reasons, contemporary foundationalism is also not an adequate method of justification, as it results in either weak justifications, or a limited amount of strong justifications.
There are several scepticisms that argue against foundationalism, and that weaken its ability to justify knowledge properly. These scepticisms include the Regress Problem, the inability to justify knowledge of the external world, and