The questions raised by GT (is blog11 to be unveiled in the near future, by the way?) in response to my previous post were very relevant and thoughtful and each one seems to get at some aspect of the puzzle that is so worrisome to me; I hope to respond to each over the next few weeks or so. In an attempt to cease the mad rush around the mulberry bush, I offer these thoughts as an examination of what the individual berries may have to offer:
1. What is the relationship between being foundational and being unassailable? What would be the consequences if (pace Descartes, et. al.) the foundations turned out to be assailable after all?
Something is unassailable in two possible ways:
1. There is no way of testing the validity of the thing and so it cannot be assailed in any way
2. All the things that support the thing are tested and found to be true and to rest upon a
final principle which is itself true; that is, the attempted assailing if you will, was
A foundation may or may not be assailable in these ways. Most epistemological foundations, if they are unassailable at all, seem to be so in the first way. An unverifiable first principle (E1) is appealing because it allows for a foundation, for a point upon which one can stand and say, “This far and no farther.” E1 is completely self-justifying, yet this justification offers no help in discovering the validity of E1. If something is unassailable because it cannot possibly be tested it loses its appeal as a foundation; its validity and everything built upon it will always be a gamble.
An epistemological foundation which is unassailable in the second way (E2) seems ideal, but also as impossible as one of Escher’s mind-boggling staircases which wind downwards for an eternity and yet irritatingly always end upstairs–unless one has the good fortune to simply have this type of foundation or pick it up without knowing it. The reason for this is that an epistemological foundation must already be in place and functioning in order to make use of the criteria which allow one to discover that the final principle of E2 is itself true.
A foundation need not be unassailable at all; however, an assailable foundation comes with a price. It must constantly be defended and upheld, and all the beliefs that flow from it cannot be known to be true (insofar as the foundation is not known to be true and is thus assailable). The first part of this price (the constant defense) may not be too high, if one is up to the task; yet, it hardly seems practical for most of us hoi polloi. There must come a point when we either say, “Right or wrong, this is my position; the devil take the details,” or else wholly devote ourselves to the study and defense of those details. The second part of the price seems much higher. Living one’s life with the realization that all of one’s beliefs may or may not be true goes a long way towards taking all impetus and passion out of one’s actions. It is good to walk circumspectly, but one must at least be able to walk.
If all foundations are assailable, another negative consequence arises. The common ground between men with varying foundations disappears as each foundation may be questioned only on the terms of another questionable foundation. Without a common foundation to work from(with accompanying principles and criteria by which to distinguish Truth from Error), all criticisms become meaningless.
These consequences, if correctly inferred, motivate me to search for some foundational and unassailable principles which, being true, can be universally used to make progress in the acquisition of knowledge.