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Must epistemic justification come to an end?


To: Christine W.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Must epistemic justification come to an end?
Date: 13th November 2009 12:42

Dear Christine,

Thank you for your email of 9 November, with your essay for the University of London Epistemology module, in response to the question, 'Justification must come to an end. Therefore, some of our beliefs are either self-justifying or unjustified.' Discuss.

This is a very well-structured essay, which makes the case for what you term 'moderate foundationalism', rejecting strong and weak foundationalism, as well as coherentism and infinitism, as responses to the challenge posed by question of 'what happens when justification comes to an end'. According to you, for the moderate foundationalist, justification comes to an end with beliefs which, though not infallible as in strong foundationalism, are more likely to be true than false.

This all makes sense. Given that your brief is to cover all the possible responses to the challenge of what happens when justification comes to an end, it is obviously not possible to go into too great a detail. An essay title specifically on coherentism, or infinitism, would have to put together a stronger case for rejecting (or accepting) the theory in question.

The essay question offers a mini-argument. There are various ways in which one might challenge that argument. Is it true that justification must come to an end? If it is true, does it follow that the only two alternatives are that some beliefs are either self-justifying or unjustified?

Rather than address the argument directly, your response is to list all the possible positions that can be taken with regard to this argument: the infinitist and coherentist in different ways reject the claim that justification must come to an end, while the foundationalist draws the conclusion that some beliefs are self-justifying, the only remaining question being how strong a 'self-justification' we require.

There were a couple of places where you made statements which an examiner might challenge. Right at the beginning you say that it would be 'impossible to obtain truth' if the regress of justification is infinite. It must be remembered that the sceptic is not challenging the idea of truth as such; on the contrary, the sceptic assumes that of two contradictory statements one must be true -- the problem being that we have no way to know which. In other words, the problem is that it will be impossible to obtain knowledge. Later, you say, 'Since inferential justification merely 'transfers' truth from one belief to another, it is itself not the source of truth; the source of truth must lie somewhere else'.

In ordinary speech, we do talk about 'truth' when we mean knowledge (or 'knowledge of truth'). However, it is important to be clear about the difference between knowledge and truth because coherence has also been put forward as a theory of truth; a coherence theory of knowledge is not the same as a coherence theory of truth. The problem of knowledge, to use Nozick's terminology, is a problem of how we *track* truth.

The second questionable claim is where you say, 'not all end-of-chain beliefs are unjustified; some beliefs are self-justifying and it is upon these self-justifying beliefs [that] all our other beliefs rest.' Can this be right? What happens to the belief chains which do not terminate in self-justifying beliefs?

For the foundationalist, moderate or strong, if a chain of beliefs does not end in a self-justifying belief, then all the beliefs in that chain are unjustified. In other words, the entire chain must be rejected. If you are building knowledge up from foundations, then everything in the superstructure must trace back to those foundations.

Possibly, this reflects your own uncertainty about what to say about 'unjustified' beliefs. This is where I would offer an alternative take on the original question.

In describing the different theories of justification you assume a Cartesian reading of the statement, 'justification must come to an end'. Even the infinitist, on your account, accepts the Cartesian reading but denies the claim: justification does not come to an end, it just goes on for ever, or at least as long as you want to pursue it.

However, there is an alternative to the Cartesian reading of 'justification must come to an end'. There comes a point where it simply doesn't make sense to ask for justification. That doesn't mean that we have found a 'self-justifying' belief. On the contrary, we wouldn't know how to justify or defend the belief in question.

G.E. Moore in his famous lecture, 'Refutation of Idealism' offered his response to the challenge posed by idealism to 'knowledge of an external world'. There are some beliefs, such as, 'I have two hands' which it simply doesn't make sense to question. They are not self-justifying; they are not unjustified. Then what are they? Wittgenstein in his last book, 'On Certainty' explores aspects of Moore's idea, offering the alternative metaphor of a hinge upon which all questions or requests for justification turn. Hinge beliefs are not foundational beliefs in the Cartesian sense, rather, they are conditions for the very possibility of raising questions about what we believe or know.

(The idea of 'conditions for the possibility of' is what is sometimes referred to as a 'transcendental argument' in Kant's sense. If A is the condition for the possibility of B, then given B we can infer A. E.g. according to Kant, perception of objects in a spatial world is a condition for the possibility of experience; so, given experience, we can deduce that there must exist an external world, thus meeting Descartes' challenge.)

Perhaps one can say that this is not so much a third alternative to 'self-justifying' or 'unjustified' but rather a non-pejorative reading of 'unjustified'. In the various responses which you have pursued -- foundationalism, coherentism, infinitism -- it seems to have been assumed that the intended meaning of 'unjustified' is more or less pejorative.

These are just points to get you thinking (or, possibly, reading). I am pleased with this essay, and glad to see that you have done some useful 'digging'.

All the best,