MWP 1.5.c Agnostic Foundationalism

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So, let us look at foundationalism again. Positive foundationalism, as I argued above, is based on an appeal to metaphysics. If coherentism was accepted because it was judged the only alternative, then this would also be metaphysics – a negative metaphysical position. However, the use of foundationalism as a theory of justification, rather than knowledge, does not necessarily have to involve metaphysical assumptions. The distinction between using a foundation for justification and using a foundation metaphysically is that a foundation used for justification would be used provisionally.

If we use a foundation in order to provide sole justification, we cannot avoid metaphysical assumptions just because of the very epistemological strategy we are using. If the justification was valid only because of its relationship to the foundation, one would be relying wholly on the foundation even if one notionally called the justification provisional. This would be the case whether the justification was positive (i.e. we relied on a foundational claim that made positive claims) or negative (i.e. we relied on a foundational claim that contradicted positive claims). For example, if my foundation was that I can provisionally rely on my senses, the fact that I would have no other source of justified belief to question my senses would contradict the alleged provisionality. Similarly if my foundation was that I can provisionally not rely on my senses.

So, the alternative strategy is twofold:

1. The foundation we use cannot provide sole or sufficient justification for beliefs, but merely necessary justification

2. The foundation we use must not make definite positive or negative claims, as these would contradict the provisionality of the justification

My conclusion is that we do need foundational justification, but the foundation must be agnostic in its content. That is, it must consist only in a recognition that we may be wrong in our assertion of justified claims. It is this very provisionality that provides an essential element of justification for claims acceptable in Middle Way Philosophy. As recognised in the previous chapter, we also need our claims to be coherent, so that coherence provides another necessary but not sufficient element of justification.

In my previous writings I have called this kind of foundationalism negative foundationalism. However, I now consider that this term carries too much of a danger of confusion with foundations that make a definite negative claim. I am thus now revising this term to agnostic foundationalism.

As previously explained (see 1.c), provisionality is a psychological state in which a belief is held, not a feature of the content of a provisional belief itself. Thus, to summarise my conclusions about justification here: a justified claim is one that is both coherent with all other claims already accepted, and is also held in a provisional way with awareness of the possibility of that claim being wrong. This definition clearly differentiates Middle Way Philosophy from forms of negative metaphysics that, having denied an epistemological foundation, rely only on coherence. As sceptical arguments such as the dream argument make clear, we need to constantly make practical allowances for the fact that our coherent world-view may be based on false assumptions.

Although all issues of justification are inevitably left hemisphere based, this account of justification also has the advantage of taking into account the right hemisphere. For where the left hemisphere assumes certainty (whether foundational or coherent), the right assumes uncertainty, so where the left assumes justification, the right merely notes a lack of it and remains on the alert for discrepancies. Agnostic foundationalism offers an account of justification that takes into account the existence of the right hemisphere merely by noting the limitations of what the left hemisphere can do by itself.

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