There are no foundations

by Neil Rickert

This post is, in part, a response to the post “In the first place …” on another blog. The author of that post writes:

It’s really strange having fallen from faith to now be starting to wonder if faith is the only way to underpin the very thing I used to push faith away with in the first place (rationality).

Here I am using “foundation” as the same as “underpinning”. So this post has to do with foundationalism in epistemology. To a first approximation, foundationalism is the idea that there is a starting set of assumptions from which all knowledge can be logically derived. And I guess that’s similar to the “presuppositional apologetics” which we see in religious circles.

Sam, the author of the post to which I am responding, goes on to write:

Does there have to be rational arguments for God? There are many rational people that believe in God. If we assume anyone who believes in God is irrational and has no root cause of belief, then we label all believers with the same brush. I’ve grown to hate this.

You can see Sam’s concern. From my point of view, there are no rational arguments for God. But that does not imply that believers are irrational.

To put this in perspective, consider the concept of mass from physics. It is a rather central concept. Yet there are no rational arguments for mass — depending, of course, on what you mean by “rational”.

I sometimes toy with the idea of writing a post “Logic is illogical; rationality is irrational.” The problem here is that both words (“logic” and “rational”) can have different meanings, and those different meanings can be in conflict. For example “logic” can be used to refer to a formal method of deductive inference. As a mathematician, that’s my preferred meaning for the term. But “logic” can also refer to using ordinary good sense in making decisions, and quite often ordinary good sense does not involve any formal inference.

Similarly, “rational” is often used to mean using logic to reach conclusions. But because there are different meanings for “logic”, that also gives us different meanings for “rational.”

Getting back to the physical concept of mass, it does not come from some rational or logical basis (depending on what that means). As best I can tell, the concept of mass was unknown to Aristotle. He would have been familiar with weight, but not with mass. In his laws of motion, Newton gave us the new concept of mass, which he saw as distinct from weight. Newton was likely influenced by Descartes, Galileo and others.

So where did mass come from? It was made from whole cloth. It was a newly made up concept. But it worked very well. Thus its basis is really in the pragmatism of science, rather than in something coming from logic.

It is probably the same for other concepts. The idea of length (or distance) may go back to pre-history. But it was likely adopted because it worked and was useful.

Epistemology

As traditionally presented, epistemology defines knowledge to be justified true belief (with perhaps some amendments to deal with “the Gettier problem”. I have often disagreed with this definition of knowledge. But if you are using that definition, then you see knowledge as a system of beliefs, and you expect those beliefs to have a rational basis. The idea of foundationalism is that there is some starting set of beliefs (the given) from which it is all derived either by logical inference or perhaps by induction.

As I see it, knowledge is really in our abilities — sometime called “knowhow”. We learn ways of doing something new. Our learning is sometimes trial and error. If we find something useful about what we have learned, then our knowledge gain can be said to be pragmatic.

After learning something new, we may want to share it with others. So we invent ways of describing it. Saying that knowledge is justified true belief makes it look as if those ways of describing are the real knowledge. But they are merely secondary knowledge. The real knowledge is in the newly acquired abilities. And the description will often turn out to be analytic (sentences that are true by virtue of the meanings of the terms). This confuses epistemologists, who tend to think that analytic sentences cannot be counted as part of knowledge.

The God question

So back to the question of whether belief in God is rational.

There are some questions that science cannot answer. They include “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

I don’t have an answer to that question. I can manage without having an answer to that question. But, for people who do require such an answer, then belief in God might be part of their answer. For such people, that would be a pragmatic choice for answering a question that is important to them. And I don’t see anything irrational about that use of pragmatics.

5 Comments to “There are no foundations”

  1. Dear Neil,

    The issue or problem is that for such people, their belief in God has not been confined to answering just that question but a whole host of other questions. The resulting overreaches, fallacies and flawed generalizations are often neither pragmatic nor rational.

    Happy August to you!

    Yours sincerely,
    SoundEagle

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I think there is a bigger issue here.

    Of course belief in a god can be rational. Rational, in this instance, refers to the process that results in that belief. There are many way that process can be rational.

    The problem is that rational does not equate to being true and nor does rational equate to being logical (as you suggested). It does not even equate to being justified.

    Far too many Christians stop at the point where their belief is labelled rational and then lazily think that that’s good enough and they do not need to do any more to validate their beliefs.

    I am happy to accept that belief in a god can be rational. But thinking that is good enough to not attempt to validate that belief, is irrational.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great post, Neil. Thanks for sharing! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  4. But, for people who do require such an answer, then belief in God might be part of their answer.

    The immediate question that comes to my mind is: Which god?
    ”And that’s when all the trouble began.”

    Liked by 2 people

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