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Foundationalism & Circularity

Can Foundationalism avoid the fallacy of circularity? That’s a very good question. Before we can answer that question, we need to determine what we are talking about and define our terms clearly. First, we are dealing with the academic discipline of philosophy. Specifically, we are discussing a question within the area of epistemology. That is, we are working in the field of seeking to answer the question of how human beings know what we know. If philosophy (literally, the love of wisdom) asks questions like what is reality? Or who am I? Epistemology asks questions like how can I know what reality is, if there is such a thing as reality? Or how can I or we know we are who we are? As you might imagine, there are a whole host of questions that arise as we seek answers to these first questions. We can’t answer them all in this post, but we can approach an answer to the question in the title of this brief essay.

The “ism” at the end of the word Foundationalism suggests that it is a technical term. It is in fact a school of thought about how we people know what we know. Historically Foundationalism arose because of the thirty years war in Europe following the Reformation, the post-Reformation era and the age of confessionalization, and the counter-Reformation response of the Roman Catholic Church in the face of Protestantism. Philosophers such as Rene Descartes and John Locke wanted to formulate an epistemology that did not depend on recourse to divine revelation and would transcend religious division in Europe and would always be true for all people everywhere.

I understand the desire to formulate an answer to the great question of how humans know what we know and whether we can know how we know what we know. Foundationalism answers the epistemological question with a model or picture of human knowledge that views human knowledge as something like a pyramid or brick wall. Common sense tells us that these two things must be built from the bottom up and not from the top down. Foundationalism seeks to build on this insight. The idea of building from the bottom up in how we understand human epistemology echoes the epistemology of ancient Greek philosophy in the thought of Aristotle and later in his disciple, the great medieval Christian theologian Thomas Aquinas. However, Foundationalism is its own theoretical explanation of how we can know what we know and how we can know that we know what we know.

If human knowledge is like a pyramid or a brick or stone wall, then there must be something unique about the stones or bricks at the base of the pyramid or wall. This brings us to the distinction that the philosopher Alvin Plantinga notes in his writings: human beliefs are either properly basic or not basic. Once again, we recognize that the stones or bricks at the bottom of the pyramid or wall hold up all the stones or bricks above them. Classical Foundationalism holds that properly basic beliefs can only be of a certain kind and the other beliefs (stones or bricks in the illustration or model) must trace their connection to properly basic beliefs. Properly basic beliefs in this view can only be such if they are either evident to the senses, incorrigible, or are self-evident. The process of connecting non-basic beliefs to properly basic beliefs involves what is called inference. That is, non-basic beliefs must be inferred from properly basic beliefs.

Alert students of Christian apologetics will have noticed that this epistemological school may serve as the theoretical basis (pun intended!) of the evidentialist school of apologetics. Whether we can trace the historic origins of evidentialism to the appearance of Classical Foundationalism or not, there appears to me to be a clear conceptual relationship. Devotees of Classical Foundationalism hold that belief in God is not properly basic, given the limitation of what counts as a properly basic belief. Classical Foundationalism would seem to necessitate the idea that belief in God is a complex idea (as over against what John Locke referred to as simple ideas). Properly basic beliefs would seem to be necessarily simple. All this means that belief in God must be inferred from more properly basic ideas (that is why it is a complex idea: a cumulation or series of non-properly basic ideas that ultimately trace their roots to a foundational or properly basic belief.) Tracing this trail is what epistemologists call the justification of

belief. Knowledge, then, is justified true belief. I would note that Alvin Plantinga has, among other things, argued for belief in God being a properly basic belief in his monumental volume Warranted Christian Belief.

What about Classical Foundationalism suggests it is guilty of the logical fallacy of circularity? I would suggest that it may lie in the justification of the very distinction between properly basic beliefs and non- properly basic ideas. Is the limitation of properly basic beliefs to those beliefs that are evident to the senses, incorrigible, or self-evident a deliverance of the Classical Foundational model itself? Or are properly basic beliefs as defined by Classical Foundationalism arbitrarily determined? Properly basic beliefs are by definition not inferred from other beliefs. That’s what makes them properly basic after all. You can see the circularity in this: what is a properly basic belief? It is a belief that is not inferred from another more properly basic belief. But what are those more properly basic beliefs? Beliefs delimited above and not inferred from other beliefs. And round and round it goes.

As a Christian presuppositionalist, I am not committed to the Classical Foundationalist model of human epistemology. However, I do think there is something intuitively correct about the idea that there are more important or significant beliefs that form the basis or foundation of our system of beliefs or what I prefer to call my worldview. Not all beliefs are created equal. And in a general sense I agree with Alvin Plantinga that belief in God is properly basic if we ground the distinction between properly basic beliefs and non-properly basic beliefs in God and his Word. Note that I have crossed the barrier between epistemology and metaphysics or ontology. Metaphysics or ontology is concerned with what is or what is real. What I am saying is that our human epistemology is dependent upon the metaphysically true reality of the Triune God of Scripture and the Scriptures themselves. Also note that while as a Christian apologist I am concerned with a universally true understanding of human epistemology, I do not seek to develop a model based upon human rationality freed from its dependence upon God and his Word. If the non-Christian unbeliever responds that my view is circular, I will agree. All ultimate beliefs are circular. Try arguing for the justification of reason without recourse to reason in the process. The justification of truthfulness of human reason depends on the use of reason in the process of defending it. I am not going to lose any sleep over this supposed fallacious circularity. Classical Foundationalism is a fallacious form of circularity because it seeks to understand how divinely created human beings can know anything true and real without recourse to the only true and properly basic belief: belief in the

Triune God of the Bible.

I have not discussed everything that could be addressed in this post. I must end somewhere. I have probably laid a multitude of conceptual landmines too. That is because while I am dependent an omnipotent and omniscient Triune God who has revealed himself in nature and Scripture, I am not God myself. Let’s end on this Scriptural reminder about a truly properly basic belief:

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom;

all those who practice it have a good understanding.

His praise endures forever!

Check out his article on Foundationalism in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:



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