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April 20th, 2012 @ 3:38 pm by Kevin
Whether we realize it or not, when it comes to how we form beliefs, most of us default to a strategy called Foundationalism. By that I mean, we choose an authority–the Bible, the Catholic Church or some other authoritative interpreter–and use that as the foundation from which we deduce all other beliefs. However, as Joel Harrison points out in a not-so-recent-but-still-excellent blog post, if we actually follow Foundationalism through to its logical conclusion, it’s doomed to fail.
The first problem with Foundationalism is the scarcity of foundational beliefs. Remember, the goal of Foundationalism is to begin with a belief about which we are so absolutely certain that its validity is beyond question. You might call this a self-evident truth or an “a priori” assumption (knowledge derived independent of experience). This hearkens back to Rene Descartes’ famous phrase, “I think, therefore I am.” For him, that was the foundation on which he would build all other beliefs.
However, right away we run into a problem. If I challenged Descartes to give me rock-solid evidence for his existence, and he responded by saying, “I think, therefore I am,” I could easily call this assertion into question by asking, “Why is thinking a validation of existence?” He would likely respond with an argument that explain his reasoning, which would then put me in a position to point out that his assertion “I think, therefore I am,” is not truly foundational, because it rests on prior assumptions about the relationship between thinking and existence. And those assumptions themselves rest on prior assumptions that justify their validity, and on and on it goes.
Before you feel too sorry for Descartes, just because I proved his belief was not foundational does not mean Foundationalism isn’t a valid way of forming knowledge. Perhaps he simply chose the wrong belief. Maybe he could offer up another candidate, such as “All triangles have three sides.” In that case, it looks like he may have me beat. If we lift up that belief, I don’t think we’ll find anything hiding underneath. It seems to meet the qualifications of a self-evident, a priori truth. The problem is, it isn’t a very fruitful foundation for further discussion, because where do we go from there? If all triangles have three sides, then… What? Once again, we hit a dead end.
The second problem with Foundationalism is that it fails its own test. Seeing as we can formulate arguments against Foundationalism as a logical system, its validity is not self-evident. As with our search for an a priori foundational belief, if we seek to justify our belief in Foundationalism, we’ll just find ourselves in another infinite regress of belief stacked upon belief.
An example: For many people, their belief in hell as a place of eternal torment for the wicked rests on the authority of the Bible. But why do you consider the Bible to be authoritative? The minute I ask that question, you will begin presenting arguments in favor of the Bible’s authority. But by doing so, you’ve just revealed that the Bible’s authority is not foundational. It’s not self-evident in the same way as the statement “all triangles have three sides” is self-evident. Your belief that the Bible is the ultimate authority for Christian belief is not a priori knowledge. Therefore, it fails the test as a valid foundation for belief. Whatever arguments you use to justify the Bible’s authority are your true authority. But even those arguments rest on other authorities and arguments, and on and on it goes…
You could concede defeat at this point and agree that perhaps the Bible isn’t the ultimate authority. After all, Jesus didn’t come to write a book; he came to found a church. So, the Catholic Church is the ultimate authority. Whatever the Church declares to be truth must be just that. But once again, the first thing I’m going to ask you is why you consider the Catholic Church an authority. And once again, you’ll have to offer arguments in favor of your position. And once again, I’ll have to gently point out that presenting those arguments reveals immediately that your belief in the authority of the Catholic Church is not a priori knowledge either. Therefore, it also fails the test as an irrefutable foundation for knowledge.
You could change strategies and cite internal evidence within the Bible validating its authority, such as the oft-quoted 1 Timothy 3:16, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correction and training in righteousness.” But I would respond with two objections: First, when that passage was written, the New Testament didn’t exist, so that claim has no bearing on the New Testament, which is probably where you turn primarily to build your case for hell.
My second objection goes back to the question of authority. Just because Paul wrote this in 2 Timothy, what makes you believe it’s true? Once again, you’ll be forced to offer up arguments in favor of the Bible’s inspiration, demonstrating again that the fact of the Bible’s inspiration is not self-evident; therefore it also fails the test as a valid foundation for knowledge.
I could go on, but you should already be able to see this leaves us in a bit of a pickle. No matter what you slap down onto the table as your ultimate trump card, you’re going to lose every time. So is there any way out of this infinite regress? I can think of a few strategies.
First of all, as Joel argues in his post, it’s time we abandoned Foundationalism as a method of forming knowledge. No matter how you slice it, it’s a dead end. Unfortunately, this also means abandoning certainty, which is a scary proposition for many people. But let’s face it, that’s the situation we’re in.
Think about it: What color is an orange? Stupid question, right? An orange, is orange—or is it? In reality, an orange isn’t orange at all; it merely reflects back the orange part of the visual spectrum. So you could say an orange is every color but orange.
Look at you: Ten seconds ago you were so certain oranges were orange. Now you’re not even certain what your name is.
Another example: Take an orange into a dark room and shut the door. What color is the orange now? There’s really no way to tell, is there? Unless you turn on the light. There it is, it’s orange again. But what color was it in the dark? Without turning the light on, how could you tell? I can think of only one way: by using a device that could measure its heat signature and correlate that data with the visual spectrum. But that’s cheating.
All that to say, if we can’t be certain what color an orange is in the dark, what can we know for sure?
In his blog post, Joel uses the example of two parallel lines. The assumption for centuries was that two parallel lines stretching out into infinity will never meet. Then Einstein came along and ruined everything by showing us the space-time continuum is curved, so sooner or later those lines are probably going to cross. Dang.
Thankfully, Joel also points out that we can function just fine without absolute certainty about parallel lines or oranges or anything else for that matter. We can be certain enough about such things to accomplish most of what we set out to do.
If we ditch Foundationalism, what should take its place? In a previous post, I suggested the Wesleyan Quadrilateral as one viable option. Credited to John Wesley, leader of the Methodist movement in the late 18th Century, the term was coined by Albert C. Outler in his introduction to a collection of Wesley’s sermons. Upon examination of Wesley’s work, Outler theorized that Wesley used four different sources to help him form theological conclusions: 1) Scripture, 2) Tradition, 3) Reason and 4) Experience.
In other words, when seeking to test a particular belief, Wesley would examine what the Bible had to say on the topic, weigh his reading of Scripture against historical interpretations within the Church, apply reason to his conclusions and then test them against his experience.
I’m not sure if Wesley always proceeded in that order, because life is rarely that buttoned down. However, being a Protestant, he likely regarded the Bible as his supreme authority. So even if his questions were triggered by rational reflection or experience or his reading of Tradition, he would probably go straight to the Bible as his point of departure for resolving them.
If Wesley were a Catholic, he would go to Tradition first and then accept whatever the Church had to say on the matter, only reading the relevant Scripture passages and applying reason and experience to help him work out the finer details. And, according to my Catholic friend, he could rest assured in the certainty of his beliefs, knowing they were based on an infallible interpretation of God’s Word.
To be honest, I can see pros and cons of both approaches. As I’ve been told many times, you can either have one Pope or a billion popes, each one offering their own interpretation of the truth. The question isn’t so much whether an interpretation is valid but which interpretation should be regarded as authoritative. The Catholics solve this problem with their hierarchical church structure. Truth is revealed from the top down. The official teaching of the Church trumps everything else. Protestants don’t really have an effective mechanism for settling such questions, hence the proliferation of church splits and denominational divides. But that’s an issue for another day…
In his post, Joel suggests an approach called Holism, which is a system of knowledge whereby beliefs rationally justify other beliefs, but even though some beliefs are viewed as more certain than others, none of those beliefs are regarded as unquestionable.
I know, it sounds complicated. But read Joel’s post. He does a great job of explaining it.
To conclude an overly long post that was just going to be a few lines of introduction to Joel’s piece, I just want to say that the quest for certainty about hell or any other theological topic is a fool’s errand. You just aren’t going to find it. And those claiming to have it are just plain wrong—at least I think they are. (Insert smiley face here.) But I’ll let Joel have the last word on that:
Christian scholars must also ask themselves what foundational reasons they have for seeking a foundation upon which to base belief. This means that we must question the motivation behind critical redaction and historical criticism in biblical hermeneutics. Certainly, those methods can be useful given the proper circumstances; however, if the goal is to arrive at the most basic, absolute understanding of the biblical text, then we… fail to recognize our own cultural conditions and subjectivity in an attempt to somehow stand from an objective position. In doing this, scholars tend to devalue other hermeneutical methods, such as those found in literary criticism, on the basis that they are not close enough to the actual meaning of the text. But why do we need that, and can we ever know it? The critique I have provided thus far will hopefully tell us that the answer is that we do not and we cannot, and it seems that our motivation behind seeking these things has been driven primarily as a reaction against scientific doubt. Therefore, scholars must leave the field of foundationalism behind.