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Warranted Christian Belief
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A. Classical Foundationalism

First, classical foundationalism is foundationalism. Here the crucial notion is that of believing one proposition on the evidential basis of others. Like any important philosophical notion, this one has its problems, complications, and perplexities. Let’s ignore them. The notion is serviceable even if it is less than wholly clear, and at any rate there are clear examples. I believe that 32 × 94 is 3008 (I’ve just calculated it); I believe this proposition on the evidential basis of others, such as 4 × 2 = 8, 4 × 3 = 12, 8 + 2 = 10, and so on. However I don’t believe those latter on the evidential basis of any other propositions at all; instead, they are ‘basic’ for me. I simply see that they are true, and accept them. I accept many propositions in this basic way: that there is snow in my backyard, for example, and that it is still white. I also believe, in the basic way, that it seems to me that I am seeing something white (I am being appeared to whitely), that I had cornflakes for breakfast, and a thousand other things. The propositions I accept in the basic way are, so to say, starting points for my thought. (This is not to say, of course, that what you take as basic doesn’t depend on what else you know or believe. I believe in the basic way that what I see coming toward me is a truck; someone with no acquaintance with trucks or motor vehicles couldn’t form that belief at all, let alone hold it in the basic way.)

The propositions that I accept in this basic way are the foundations of my structure of beliefs—my ‘noetic structure’, as I shall call it for ease of reference.7474   For an account of noetic structures, see WCD, pp. 72ff. And according to the foundationalist, in an acceptable, properly formed noetic structure, every proposition is either in the foundations or believed on the evidential basis of other propositions. Indeed, this much is trivially true; a proposition is in the foundations of my noetic structure if and only if it is basic for me, and it is basic for me if and only if I don’t accept it on the evidential basis of other propositions. This much of foundationalism should be uncontroversial and accepted by all.7575   Even by coherentists: see WCD, pp. 78ff. Further (and still properly uncontroversial), for every proposition in my noetic structure that is not in the foundations, there is an evidential path terminating in the foundations: that is, if A is nonbasic for me, then I believe it on the basis of some other proposition B, which I believe on the basis of some other proposition C, and so on down to a foundational proposition or propositions.7676   See “Reason and Belief in God,” p. 54.

Now Locke clearly accepts this much; but he also accepts more. A foundationalist will also typically claim that not just any belief is properly basic; some propositions are such that if I accept them in the basic way, there is something wrong, something skewed, something unjustified about my noetic structure. Imagine, for example, that because of an inordinate admiration for Picasso, I suddenly find myself with the belief that he didn’t die; like Elijah, he was directly transported to heaven (in a peculiarly warped sort of chariot with a great misshapen eye in the middle of its side). If I don’t believe this proposition on the evidential basis of any others, it is basic for me. But there is something defective, wrong, unhappy in my believing this proposition in the basic way; this proposition is not properly basic. Noting that only some propositions seem to be properly basic, a foundationalist may go on to lay down conditions of proper basicality, admitting some kinds of propositions to this exalted condition and rejecting others. And the classical foundationalist holds that the only propositions that are properly basic for me are the ones that are certain for me.

Certainty is another difficult and much contested notion; again, let us ignore the difficulties and contests, noting that classical foundationalists don’t always agree as to which propositions are indeed certain in this way. Descartes admits only propositions that are self-evident or incorrigible. Locke accepts these as properly basic; he also adds, as I said earlier, propositions that are ‘evident to the senses’—at least such propositions as something is causing me to have the ideas I do in fact have, and possibly also more robust propositions, such as that the ground is showing through the snow in my backyard. Let’s say, a bit vaguely, that according to classical foundationalists, a proposition is properly basic, for a person S, if and only if it is self-evident for S, or incorrigible for S, or evident to the senses for S.

Further, according to the classical foundationalists (and everyone else), you can’t properly believe just any proposition on the basis of just any other. I can’t properly believe, for example, the proposition that Abraham lived around 1800 b.c. on the basis of the proposition that Brutus stabbed Julius Caesar; the latter has nothing to do, evidentially speaking, with the former. Rather, I properly believe A on the basis of B only if B supports A, is in fact evidence for A. Again, this notion of evidential support is difficult and controversial;7777   See WCD, pp. 69ff. once more, let us ignore the difficulties and controversies and note that different classical foundationalists propose different evidential relationships as being what is required if my belief of A on the basis of belief B is to be proper. Descartes seems to suggest that a proposition is acceptable in the superstructure of my noetic structure only if I have deduced it from or seen it to be entailed by those in the foundations. This is an extremely strenuous standard (and in fact very few of our beliefs turn out to be acceptable on this standard.) Locke admitted probabilistic support or evidence, and he also admitted testimony. Later on, Charles Sanders Peirce and others went further still and admitted also what he sometimes called ‘abduction’—something like the relationship between a scientific theory and the evidence on which it is based. Stating classical foundationalism at its most capacious, therefore, suppose we put it as follows:

(CF) A belief is acceptable for a person if (and only if) it is either properly basic (i.e., self-evident, incorrigible, or evident to the senses for that person), or believed on the evidential basis of propositions that are acceptable and that support it deductively, inductively, or abductively.

In a properly run noetic structure, therefore, if you take any belief B that is not basic (not in the foundations), B will be accepted on the basis of other beliefs that are acceptable and that support B (either deductively, inductively, or abductively); if those others are not in the foundations, they will be accepted on the basis of still others that are acceptable and that support them, and so on, down to the foundations—that is, down to propositions that are self-evident, incorrigible, or evident to the senses for you.

Classical foundationalism, as I say, has been enormously influential from the Enlightenment to the present. For many philosophers and others (for myself earlier on), it has amounted to a sort of unquestioned assumption, unquestioned because it isn’t seen clearly enough even to recognize as an assumption. Locke’s views here, particularly with respect to religion, have achieved the status of orthodoxy, and most discussions of the rational justification of religious belief have been and still are conducted in the unthinking acceptance of that framework. There may be modifications of one sort or another, analogical extensions of the original framework, departures of one sort or another; there may be a sort of unease with it, a dimly felt sense that not all is well with it; still, for most of us, the basic framework remains in the near neighborhood of classical foundationalism.


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