Here begins the eighth installment of my incredibly expanding review of John Loftus’ book Why I Became an Atheist. For part seven click here.
In this section I’ve decided to return to some unfinished business on page 44.
On this page Loftus endorses a classical foundationalist epistemology. And what is that, exactly?
According to foundationalism, there are two types of belief, basic and non-basic. I’ll quote Loftus here: “A belief is considered basic if it’s not inferred from other beliefs but rather is known directly, while a belief that is nonbasic is inferred from other beliefs.” (44)
It should be noted that many epistemologists do not accept foundationalist theories of noetic structure (a fact that Loftus fails to point out). But nonetheless, many others do.
As for classical foundationalism, this is a particular form of foundationalism according to which the only kinds of beliefs that can be properly basic are those that are self-evident (e.g. 2+2=4), evident to the senses (e.g. I am appeared to redly), or incorrigible (e.g. If I exist then something exists). Loftus appears to be drawn to this theory for the same reason he was drawn to Cliffordean evidentialism, i.e. “No religious belief system is capable of meeting the high standards required for belief….” (41)
One of the common objections to classical foundationalism is that it is self-referentially defeating because belief in classical foundationalism cannot be traced back to any beliefs that are themselves self-evident, evident to the senses or incorrigible. From this it follows that if the theory is true, then it is irrational to accept it.
Loftus responds to this dilemma by borrowing a proposal from Anthony Kenny that the classical foundationalist should add a fourth possible source of proper basicality, “defensible by argument”.
Unfortunately, Loftus never responds to the obvious objection that such a maneuver is indefensibly ad hoc. Nor does he address the fact that the classical foundationalist was originally driven to limit the foundations by the intuition that epistemic foundations should be absolutely secure (a questionable assumption that many now suspect was really borne of undiagnosed Cartesian angst). Set against this backdrop, why would being merely “defensible by argument” now qualify to be included as properly basic? And if we’re going to open the foundations up to corrigible defenses, why not open them wider yet?
Even more critically, this form of classical foundationalism still faces a bracing issue of skepticism since these four sources are arguably far too Spartan to support the vast amount of seemingly properly basic knowledge human beings gain from a range of sources including proprioception, memory, moral intuition, aesthetic perception, testimony, and so on.
What Loftus doesn’t tell the reader is that the theory of classical foundationalism has been lying moribund for several years. That has started to change only recently as the theory has begun to attract a bit more attention. For example, a few years ago philosopher Michael DePaul edited a volume titled Resurrecting Old-Fashioned Foundationalism (Rowman and Littlefield, 2001). Of course the choice of title — resurrecting — gives you a sense of the recent necrotic state of classical foundationalism.
Suffice it to say, it is going to take more than half a page and a quick reference to Anthony Kenny to bring classical foundationalism back to life.
By contrast, Alvin Plantinga’s proper function foundationalism, the position Loftus aims to criticize, is well within the contemporary mainstream of epistemology. Since the late 1960s externalist, moderate foundationalist theories of noetic structure have flourished — e.g. Alvin Goldman, William Alston, Robert Nozick, Michael Bergmann — and Alvin Plantinga’s position fits well within this mainstream. Further out on the periphery of externalism you also have W.V.O. Quine’s project to naturalize epistemology by reducing it to cognitive psychology.
Unfortunately the reader unfamiliar with the discipline will likely develop the impression that Loftus’ position is relatively mainstream, while Plantinga’s is fringe when, in fact, the opposite is the case.