How do we know anything? On what basis do we form our beliefs? What makes one belief justified, and another not?
Welcome to the wacky world of epistemology, the study of knowledge. Not the content of knowledge, but rather the process by which we acquire it.
What is Truth
Going back to the Greek philosophers, a grounding for philosophical pursuit was that there was an absolute truth about reality, which formed a foundation upon which all beliefs might attach. The existence of a foundation has sometimes been questioned, as here:
Jesus: My kingdom is not of this world. . . .
Pilate: So you are a king?
Jesus: You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.
Pilate: What is truth?
Jesus was saying that there is an objective, identifiable truth. He came to give evidence of that truth, so that belief in that truth that He presented would be justified in those who hear and accept. The Hebrews to whom he primarily directed His message already accepted that there was a foundational truth, and that it was found in God, the creator and sustainer of all things. The pagan Pilate didn’t even go that far. He didn’t merely question whether the belief was justified. He questioned whether any belief would be justified.
Writing Truth With History
Belief in what Jesus presented as true is thus justifiable if one believes (a) that there is pre-existing truth for us to discover; and (b) that the evidence of Jesus’s life and words are persuasive, if not conclusive. This has been a straightforward basis for forming Christian belief down through the generations, to today. God could have spoken through analytical philosophy, but instead He speaks through history: personality, events, supernatural revelation.
Now enter philosophy. A project of ascertaining truth purely from reason has been underway for millennia. It has been most pronounced, and more overt, at least since the scientific revolution, which presaged the Enlightenment era of the 1700’s. In the mid-1600’s, Rene Descartes sought out an epistemological foundation from which to apply pure reason. He famously wrote cogito ergo sum, by which he meant that this one thing, if no other, is true: that I, the thinking self, am. Therefore the sensory experiences to which I apply rational thought produces knowledge. Beliefs formed upon the basis of this foundation may be justifiable.
This foundation, and others such as John Locke’s experiential basis for knowledge, may constitute basic beliefs. A belief is properly basic if it does not depend upon justification of other beliefs, but on something outside the realm of belief. Beliefs that are not properly basic depend on the basic beliefs for their validity. As we touched on here, belief in God is held by some to be a properly basic belief; that is, it is a proper foundation for all other belief in the same way that one’s belief in his own existence and ability to reason (cogito ergo sum) may be regarded as properly basic.
Against this understanding of foundationalism for epistemology, there is a new competitor, referred to as coherentism. It is the view that there is no foundational belief which by itself justifies belief; that all beliefs are formed from other beliefs. Because there is no foundation, a belief maybe justified only if it is a member of a coherent set. The set, then, is the bearer of justification; not some external foundational belief that is deemed axiomatic or self-proving.
So if we embrace coherentism, what do we get? We get belief systems that are formed by the various constellation of beliefs that we hold. To use beliefs in the arena of politics for an example, if you believe that people retain dignity if they work to provide for themselves, you may also hold a belief that less government is better and less invasive. These beliefs are mutually reinforcing, and so they would be among the constellation of beliefs that you hold. No foundational, “basic” belief underlies them, however, if coherentism be true.
If you’re paying close attention, you might think: wait a minute. If one’s epistemology is based on a foundation of coherentism, aren’t we just back to foundationalism? But let that irony pass, for now. The epistemological theory of coherentism has a superficial appeal. There must be some validity to it, we feel, because after all we all hold beliefs that are reinforced by other beliefs. But remember that the justifiability of beliefs in this model of epistemology is derived from the set of beliefs as a whole. It is unmoored from any fundamental beliefs. There is no basic belief.
And so, according to coherentism, if you believe in God, you find that belief justifiable only because it fits the set, reinforcing and being reinforced by other beliefs you happen to hold. Not because it is a foundation upon which all other beliefs may be established. It is important to recognize coherentism when one encounters it, and recognize its limitations as a way of thinking about how we know anything. It is sometimes set up as a plausible way of thinking about how we hold our beliefs, but if no truth is self-evident, then all beliefs float free, available to be absorbed into the particular constellation of beliefs that any particular individual holds.
Ultimately, coherentism directs us to ask the same question Pilate did.