Monday, July 11, 2005

On the Supposed Instability and Unworkability of Foundationalism as an Evangelical Epistemology

I am not a philosopher; I am an exegete. So when someone writes an article that attempts to undermine the legitimacy of a widely accepted exegetical method, or attacks propositional truth as some sort of "Gnostic beaming of thought between minds," I can (after the obligatory head shaking due to the humor inherent in such attempts) respond to that as an exegete. I can easily demonstrate from the Scriptures themselves, for instance, that the biblical writers accepted and regularly employed such things as propositional truth, commended absolute certainty of that truth, and did not hesitate to condemn those who rejected that truth. Nor do we have to go far into the New Testament to show that. As anyone familiar with the NT writings can attest, it is replete with such things.

However, when those attacks instead take the form of calling into question the legitimacy of the school of epistemology upon which exegesis ostensibly rests, I happily defer that to an expert in that area, one who can respond as a philosopher. And so I sent this link on the supposed "instability and unworkability of Foundationalism as an Evangelical epistemology" to a recent acquaintance and new friend, Timothy McGrew, who teaches in the philosophy department at Western Michigan University. Dr. McGrew received his Ph.D. from Vanderbilt, specializes in epistemology, and did his doctoral work on Foundationalism. He also published a book on this called The Foundations of Knowledge. As you might gather from all this, Dr. McGrew is eminently qualified to speak on issues of epistemology in general and Foundationalism in particular, and actually knows a thing or two about them (unlike others who pretend to know something about these issues even though they have not yet so much as earned an undergraduate degree in the field, and are simply using impressive words they themselves do not truly comprehend).

In any case, Dr. McGrew was kind enough to provide the following evaluation of the article in question. I think interested readers--not to mention all those who have in the past been confused by such articles coming from the keyboards of the Postmoderns formerly known as Protestants, but were too intimidated by their use of words, phrases and scholarly name-dropping to question what they write--will find Dr. McGrew's comments highly instructive:


Eric, Since you provided me with a link to it, I read Tim Enloe’s piece on foundationalism. It’s a curious experience for a professional in the field to see what happens when an earnest young student reads something like Clapp’s essay. Understandably Enloe lacks the background to see where Clapp is talking through his hat. The upshot is a real mess that would not be worth sorting out were it not for the fact that it might be taken seriously and perpetuate errors far more widely.

Enloe starts well, writing:

Simply put, foundationalism is the epistemological position that an individual’s belief structure must be premised upon a foundation of non-inferential beliefs–that is, beliefs which in some fashion or another stand “on their own” …
The use of “premised” is a little awkward, but that aside this isn’t a bad first approximation. However, the sentence twists off into nonsense at the end:
… and constitute the very definition of “rationality”.

The foundations do not, for any foundationalist I’m aware of, “constitute” the definition of rationality. In the ordinary acceptation of the term, to be rational is to proportion one’s beliefs to the evidence. Enloe offers an interpretive clue in the next line:
All inferred beliefs must rest finally on non-inferred beliefs if they are to be considered “reasonable”.

Taken at face value, this is unobjectionable. But we should note three points about it:

1. The word rest hasn’t been defined yet.

2. The word finally is important. Foundationalism does not rule out the existence of intermediate structure between the foundations and the higher-level beliefs.

3. There is a danger that the sentence will be interpreted later as giving a criterion of reasonable belief, when in fact it expresses only a necessary condition.

The distinction in point 3 is important and worth elaborating. It is a necessary condition for a substance to be an acid that it bond with the hydroxyl ion, but no sane chemist holds up a test tube and peers into it trying to see by inspection whether it does so bond. Instead one checks for a low pH, or inserts a bit of blue litmus and looks for a color change, or (as in the bad old days of chemistry) takes a small sip and assesses it by taste. No doubt all of these tests are picking up, with more or less fidelity, on whether the substance does in fact bond with the hydroxyl ion. But – and this is the critical point – they can all be applied by someone who has no idea what a hydroxyl ion is, and it is no criticism of the definition to point out that we cannot tell by inspection whether the substance in the test tube would bond with that ion. The taste test was in fact applied long before chemists came to have a sound understanding of the structural properties of acids. Similarly, it may be a necessary condition for a belief to be reasonable that it be grounded, ultimately, in foundational beliefs; but it does not follow that the test of a belief’s reasonableness will be a direct inspection of the way that it is grounded.

I raise these three points only because, from the way Enloe’s piece goes on, it becomes obvious that he isn’t aware of the potential pitfalls here.

The historical sketch that comes next is misleading in a number of ways. Foundationalism can be traced back in the history of philosophy at least as far as Aristotle, for example. I don’t want to dwell too long on this, since Enloe is hardly unique and is in any event probably depending on Clapp here. But just to take one example, he writes:
Like many men of his generation (a hundred years after the beginning of the epic battle between Roman Catholics and Protesting Catholics), Descartes found himself in a state of high anxiety about how to know truth and deal with the rapidly proliferating and equally contradicting, authority claimants. In the realm of the newly-emerging science men such as Galileo, Newton, and Leibniz viciously fought in tracts and books and debates that tore the intellectual world to pieces. A similar condition obtained in the realm of theology, as militant factions went to actual physical war with each other over competing religious truth claims, ravaging whole nations (and setting up a stereotype that is still with us today about what supposedly necessarily happens when a religion is in cultural power).
This passage seems to suggest that men of Descartes’s generation were caught up in the verbal war between Newton and Leibniz over priority in the development of the calculus. Since neither Newton nor Leibniz had been born at the time that Descartes wrote the Meditations, this can’t be right. But it is hard to think of any other “vicious” debate that “tore the intellectual world to pieces.” Galileo engaged in a couple of heated debates in print and toured Europe trying to win support for his telescopes, and he was notoriously placed under house arrest by the Inquisition, an event that caused Descartes to suppress his work Le Monde in which he advocated the Copernican view. But this event did not have the polarizing influence Enloe seems to be ascribing to the debates he has in mind. Galileo’s works, including the Two New Sciences, were published in Holland and the new dynamics spread rapidly. There was not much in the way of intellectual debate about Aristotelianism in physics thereafter.

What is at least as important is what Enloe leaves out. Descartes was a student at La Fleche during the time that Francois Veron taught there, and it seems probable that he became acquainted with the arguments of the Pyrrhonian skeptics at that time. Veron himself was the most popular Catholic apologist of his day and secured letters patent from the King of France authorizing him to hold public debates with the Protestants at any time and any place.

Veron’s method, also used by de Sales and by Montaigne’s disciple Charron, was to ask the Protestants how they knew that the books of the Old and New Testaments are Holy Scripture. Even supposing that they did, how could they reasonably interpret what they read? When the Protestants replied that they were reading Scripture reasonably and drawing obvious and logical inferences from the text, Veron would bring out the “new machine of war,” a set of skeptical questions and arguments designed to reduce the Protestants to shuddering silence. To go beyond the words and draw inferences is not itself a procedure expressly enjoined by Scripture. When the Calvinists protested that reason is a gift of God and that Jesus himself reasoned logically, Veron replied contemptuously that Aristotle invented the rules of logic and that a pagan was no arbiter of religious truth.

If, therefore, we are going to complain about the impact of methodical doubt on religious belief, we should start with Veron (or de Sale and Charron) and not try to pin the matter on Descartes.

Skipping over some other mistakes about Descartes, we come to this remark:
Upon this absolutely indubitable foundational belief, this “clear and distinct idea”, Descartes then reconstructed his entire knowledge base via the inductive method of piling up on top of it additional “clear and distinct ideas” of (presumably) equal indubitability as the first.
This looks like it is intended as a description of Descartes’s methodology. But it can hardly be that. Descartes’s method was anything but inductive: it involved pure deduction from indubitable first principles, on the order of Euclidean geometry. More importantly, Descartes acknowledges at the end of the Meditations that we cannot, in real life, live up to this method: it is an ideal, the way that deductive omniscience is an ideal for a mathematician or a logician.

This takes us back to the first two numbered points about the interpretation of foundationalism. Enloe apparently understands neither the nature of the inferential relation involved in Descartes’s foundationalism nor the role that the ideal of a deductive structure is supposed to play in his system. Ironically, in his attempts to construct explanations for physical phenomena in the Principles of Philosophy, Descartes himself abandons the idea of deducing his theories from first principles and opts for a hypothetico-deductive model of scientific inquiry.

But the most important point of all is that the deductive conception of the inference from foundations upward, though characteristic of Descartes’s version of foundationalism, found almost no favor with subsequent philosophers and was almost immediately upstaged by the probabilistic epistemologies of Grotius, Chillingworth, Tillotson, Boyle, and the Royal Society epistemologists. Some inferences are deductive, to be sure; but many are not. Locke (following Descartes!) explicitly endorsed the use of probability when certainty was not obtainable, and in this he was followed by virtually all 18th century philosophers and theologians, including notably Butler, Hartley, and Hume.

At this point Enloe’s essay takes a decided turn for the worse. Conflating the idea of grounding non-foundational beliefs in foundations as a necessary condition for rational belief, on the one hand, with the idea of a criterion of reasonable belief, on the other, he portrays subsequent foundationalists as involved in a cat-fight over who was “prejudiced” and who was not. He amalgamates the notion of reasonableness to that of clarity and distinctness, an amalgamation that will not stand up to a few hundred pages’ reading of the major figures in question. And he proceeds to psychoanalyze the hapless foundationalists in terms of the paranoia supposedly brought on by their epistemic commitments:
Thus, the methodology of radical doubt was able to secure freedom from all doubt only by radically epistemologically isolating each individual from every other individual. Locking each individual up inside his own head and leaving him the ability to truly know something with certainty only by the exercise of his own purportedly unprejudiced faculties, the method gave birth to what has been subsequently called “the egocentric predicament”. The center of an individual’s knowledge is his own self, and if any doubt is ever allowed to survive in one’s self it will inevitably call into question all the subsequent “indubitable” beliefs so carefully built on top of the “indubitable” foundation. This of course provides a powerful psychological incentive to paint disputed matters in the “clearest” possible manner–that is, the most simplistic manner possible, so that there is no room whatsoever for any doubt. Cartesian foundationalism thus radically separated the knowing subject from the object to be known, and in effect reduced the object to be known to merely whatever happens to be “clear and distinct” to the private, isolated knowing subject. Somewhat paradoxically, doubt is for the foundationalist simultaneously the undoubtable foundation of his system and its undoubtable mortal enemy.
And again:
The kicker, of course, is that abandoning foundationalism will of necessity entail the abandonment of the “absolute certainty” which foundationalism claims it can create–a kind of absolute lack of doubt which certain forms of American Protestantism (particularly “conservative Evangelicalism”) often appear to be so deeply bound up with that to suggest another way of thinking and living instantly invokes alarmist cries of “The sky is falling!” Many Evangelicals seem to be desperately afraid of facing the possibility that what seems “clear and distinct” to them is not at all so to their brother across the street in the other denomination, and worse still, that their brother across the street in the other denomination is not some kind of “unreasonable” person who “twists Scripture” because he has a “preconceived agenda” and “prefers traditions of men over what God has plainly said.” The fear of facing a reality that is far more rich and diverse than a few “clear” slogans can possibly hope to describe with anything approaching adequacy in turn covers over a more basic problem: the existence of doubts that cannot be assuaged by any means which proceed according to the dictates of human autonomy fallibly grappling with “absolute truth” and foolishly pretending to be able to stuff it all, without remainder, into a really tiny, maximally-excluding box called “certainty”.
The only excuse I can think of for Enloe’s writing this is that he is following Clapp, who writes that “foundationalist rhetoric actually makes conversation and conversion more difficult, since it inclines us toward believing that those who disagree are necessarily benighted or ill-intentioned. And who of us tries to listen harder to someone who regards us as stupid or immoral?” (pg. 90) Indeed, Enloe’s trust in the fairness and accuracy of Clapp’s representation borders on unshakeable certainty.

When he turns from this caricature to the argument that something is wrong with foundationalism, Enloe again appeals to Clapp:
Clapp begins the demonstration of his point by pointing out the irony that foundationalism is wedded to a “mathematical” conception of truth but that its understanding of mathematics isn’t even accurate on the basic terms of mathematics. For instance, although it may seem intuitively “clear and distinct” to the naive foundationalist that always, everywhere, and at all times 7 + 9 = 16, this is in fact true only in what might be called a “base 10″ system. Switching to a “base 16″ system would yield quite a different result: 7 + 9 = 10.
This pathetic excuse for an argument is worthy of the old sophists. It amounts to nothing more than verbal trickery. Numerical expressions take their meaning from the base in which we operate, so the expression “7 + 9 = 16” in base 10 and the expression “7 + 9 = 10” in base 16 actually express the same proposition. They are not rival statements at all; they have the same truth conditions.

If this is representative of what passes for argument in the theological literature on foundationalism, then theology is in an even more desperate state today than I had previously supposed.

I haven’t read the controversies between Piper and Grudem (the complementarians) on the one hand and the egalitarians on the other, so I will simply observe that I can see, from Enloe’s description, no reason to think that their disagreements arise in virtue of shared foundationalist commitments per se or that they would be resolved if either party (or both) were to abandon foundationalism.

Clapp, however, seems to think that this issue is a key to other controversies. Enloe writes:
Anticipating the objection that immediately occurs to the foundationalist, Clapp next observes that it is only on foundationalist premises themselves that we are forced to respond to the diversity and complexity of theological debates by choosing between two stark opposites, “objectivity” or “relativism”.

This quotation is a good example of what happens when people who are educated beyond their capacity for rigorous thinking try to do conceptual analysis. Vapid talk about “diversity and complexity” will do no work here. Are there standards of reasoning and argument to which all parties ought to agree? If so, then in its standard sense “relativism” is false. It does not follow that any one person has the truth in his back pocket. It also does not follow that he doesn’t. There’s nothing for it but to roll up our sleeves and engage in particular arguments with all the learning and goodwill and, yes, objectivity we can muster.

At the end of his article, Clapp takes a flying leap off of a cliff:
Clapp closes his article by explaining the point with which he opened it, namely, that Evangelicals need to abandon foundationalism in order that they might be “less devout liberals.” Clapp explains that what he means by “liberalism” here is “the liberalism of Kant, Locke, Rousseau, Mill and other beacons of the Enlightenment”, a liberalism “that told us we must escape the particularities of history and tradition, substitute state neutrality for the pursuit of any substantive common good, and allow individuals in “public” to choose autonomously, answering only to the principles of a supposedly universal and innate reason” (pg. 91). This type of liberalism, the very foundation of the secularist Enlightement that replaced Medieval Christendom, “has privatized faith, obsessed us with the nation-state and led us to neglect the church, and made us defer speaking about the God of Israel and Jesus Christ as our firm foundation until we have first proven ourselves in the supposedly more basic terms of foundationalist, universal reason” (ibid).
Lieber Gott, where to begin?

Let’s start by separating Locke firmly from the company of Rousseau and Kant. Anyone who doesn’t understand why this is unfair to Locke has not read the Essay and the Reasonableness of Christianity and compared them with the first Critique, Religion within the Bounds of Reason, and Emile – or, alternatively, he has suffered that peculiar form of brain damage that a seminary education in the wrong places can sometimes induce.

Moving on, how did we go in just a few lines from an epistemological discussion to talk about state neutrality? Is there any pretense of a logical connection here? If I had not recently forced myself to read some John Milbank I would not have believed that this sort of saltation could be mistaken in some circles for evidence of profundity.

But enough. As I said at the beginning, sorting out a mess like this is an ungrateful task; one ends up feeling frustrated at the scope and depth of the misconceptions involved and is likely to be reviled as “uncharitable” for speaking the truth about such intellectual fraud. The task has increased my respect for Doug Groothuis’s work in his book Truth Decay and his other essays and reviews (some of them available online). Doug has waded through cesspools of this stuff for the sake of bringing some sanity to the discussions; his reward is that he is a prophet without honor among evangelicals who have been addled (or suckered) by postmodernism. I’m sorry that it has taken up some of your time as well, and I hope you’ll feel free to pass these comments along to anyone who might be able to profit from them.


And so I shall. And I want to thank Dr. McGrew for clarifying the issues so well and for making his comments readily available to the readers of this blog. I think it should now be obvious to the reader that the postmodern-sounding materials coming from some of the owners of the "confusio sanctorum" blog sound that way for a good reason. They have adopted postmodern thought uncritically, and are relying uncritically on the works of postmodern evangelists who just have it wrong. I suggest you bookmark this blog entry, and pull it out the next time you hear one of the Postmoderns formerly known as Protestants claim "the reason you can't do exegesis of the Bible on your own is because you can't see past your own Modernistic assumptions; and if you had only read the same 1500 pages of highly selective philosophical works that I have read, you'd come to the same conclusion that I did; and in fact since you have not read those 1500 pages of philosophical works, you should just take my word for it that I know what I'm talking about and you don't."

As I mentioned in the past, some people just have a bad case of "bacheloritis." That's the label I have given to the (not uncommon) condition that characterizes someone who is in college and who happens to stumble onto some new or as-yet-unpopularized school of thought, adopts that school of thought in toto as a religion, and becomes even more unyielding as an evangelist of that thought than the originators of the school themselves. The remedy for such a condition is usually graduation and moving on to other things. If you still hold the same view after seven or eight more years of formal education, so be it. But the undergraduate level is not the level to solidify those kinds of beliefs.