One of the big issues in epistemology is the problem of infinite regress. "I believe the sun will rise." "How do you know that?" "Because it always has." "How do you know that?" "Because my memory and human records confirm it has." "How do you know that?" "Because I've examined those memories and records." "How do you know that?" And so on. It looks like this could go on forever. It seems like any answer you give can be doubted. We can always keep asking "How do you know that?" And this isn't the only line of regress. "I believe the sun will rise." "How do you know that?" "Because it always has." "How do you know something that's always happened will continue to happen?" And so on.
The difference between these two lines of questioning is that the first is about the facts, while the second is about which rules are valid when interpreting those facts. Every rule is doubtable, because exceptions are always possible, and every fact is doubtable, because we could always be mistaken, someone could always have made an error, or lied, or our memories could be inaccurate or false, and so on. Thus, the problem of regress is just this: Where is it reasonable to stop doubting, to stop asking questions? When should we just shut up and believe?
Chris says "I do not think that Carrier has escaped the problem of regress" because "no line of reasoning can ever get us out of skepticism regarding memory, because in order to reason we must be able to remember the previous steps of the line of reasoning" and therefore, Chris concludes, "I think [Christian apologist Alvin] Plantinga has hit upon the only real solution to the problem of regress." Chris acknowledges but doesn't say enough about my refutation of Plantinga's proposed solution in Sense and Goodness without God (especially on pages 43-47 and 184-85).
What is Plantinga's "solution"? Simply to assume Christian Theism is true, and that we are fully justified in assuming this without needing any evidence Christian Theism is true. "I don't need a reason to believe it." Silly, you might say, but a number of Christians agree with him and are marching along to the same tune. In his own attempt at a solution (on a subsequent blog entry), Chris says "though one belief may be occasionally traced to another, there must always be givens, or else we fall back into the problem of regress," which I likewise argue. Yet I could not find any actual solution to this problem on his blog.
Chris seems to say that all we need do is just arbitrarily assume some things, but he never explains what things we are allowed to assume, or why it is okay to assume those things, and not others, or a smaller set of things to begin with. He recognizes this as a problem for Plantinga--as Chris says, if we get to assume Christian Theism is true, then we could just as easily assume Great Pumpkinism is true, so where does that get us? But if we can't just start with assumptions like those, because they are dangerously and irresponsibly arbitrary (and they are), then what assumptions can we start with? Chris doesn't say. That's not a solution.
In contrast, I did offer a solution. And it works. Chris thinks it doesn't, but he seems to have missed several elements of my epistemology, although not everything he missed is adequately explicit in my book. So here's a clearer exposition on the subject.
First, I discuss radical skepticism a bit more in Sense and Goodness than Chris seems aware, and in ways directly pertinent to this discussion. Just look up "Cartesian Demon" in the index and read every passage listed there. It's important to understand what a Cartesian Demon is, and why we are justified in rejecting the existence of such a thing. Basically, a Cartesian Demon (or CD) is anything (intelligent or otherwise) that meddles with our perception and memory in exactly such a way as to consistently mislead us into false conclusions. It's the big "Well, what if someone planted all the evidence!?" objection to every conceivable claim. It needn't be a "someone," either. We could just as easily say something like, "Well, what if an undiscoverable conjunction of physical laws and processes is misleadingly creating all the evidence?" Either way, we're talking about an appeal to a Cartesian Demon.
Experiences are Not Limited to Sensory Perceptions
Second, in Sense and Goodness I specifically include emotions and thoughts among basic experiences (e.g. page 30). So despite what Chris implies, I did not ignore "interpretations" in my category of "perceptions," since "interpretations" are experiences of thoughts, and those thoughts are properly basic. What do I mean by that? To say something is "properly basic" is to declare that it's something we get to assume without needing a reason to believe it. In my epistemology, however, in direct contrast to Plantinga's, only what is literally undeniable gets to be called "properly basic." For I believe we need a reason, at least some reason, to believe anything else--if it could be false, if there is any chance it could be false, then we need some reason to believe it isn't false. It needn't be a weighty or elaborate or air tight reason. Any genuine reason will do. But if we need even a tiny little reason to believe something before we are warranted in believing it, then that belief cannot be called properly basic.
For example, the fact that our thoughts and "interpretations" exist at the moment we experience them is undeniable, regardless of whether they are true or correct, and therefore our belief in the existence of those thoughts and interpretations is properly basic. Likewise, it can also be undeniable that there exists at this moment an experience of our "interpretations" cohering well--or not cohering well--with everything we are experiencing at the same moment. Now, just because we are experiencing an interpretation of the facts that is cohering well with everything else going on, doesn't mean it is cohering well (we could be in error about that), nor does such coherence mean our interpretation is true (since there are often countless explanations of the same facts that are equally coherent). But the fact that we are experiencing that coherence is undeniable. Since it cannot be false that we are experiencing it right here and now, it is properly basic. We get to believe we are having that experience without needing any reason to believe that, other than the one reason entirely contained within itself: the fact that it cannot be false.
The same holds for memories, which are also properly basic. Whether they are true memories or false, or accurate or inaccurate or flawed or precise, none of that is properly basic, but the conclusion that they are true or accurate or precise can be (and ought to be) the deduction from properly basic experiences, which include thoughts and hence "interpretations," as well as other memories, "experiences of coherence" and "experiences of an idea making sense" and so on. These can even include undeniable desires, like an experience of having the desire to follow a certain rule. There is literally nothing else left. When you add up all the reasons (all the reasons) you have right now to believe any x, you will always (always) end up with a finite collection of experiences (whether a combination of perceptions, emotions, thoughts, memories, etc.), which are in turn entirely and without remainder reducible to a finite (not infinite) collection of properly basic, in fact literally undeniable, experiences (again, whether these be perceptions, emotions, thoughts, memories, etc.).
Therefore, every epistemology avoids infinite regress, since there is always a point where the justifying evidence simply stops. You couldn't continue the train of evidence even if you wanted to. Therefore, there is no such thing as infinite regress in epistemology. Which means the only difference between my epistemology and Plantinga's is that he stops with an arbitrarily selected set of deniable evidence, whereas I argue we must keep going until we've gotten to the bottom, which is always a finite set of undeniable experiences. This is all it can ever be, because in the end, there isn't anything else left. I have argued this more clearly and in more specific detail at the Secular Web, in an article I actually cite in Sense and Goodness, which I recommend to everyone interested in natural philosophy: Defending Naturalism as a Worldview: A Rebuttal to Michael Rea's World Without Design (2003).
Memory and Subconscious Reasoning
Third, I do not agree with Chris that we must presume memory is true in order to reason. If that were the case, we could never identify a false or inaccurate memory. Instead, we hypothesize the reliability of our memory, and constantly test that hypothesis against current experience, which includes current experiences of those and other memories, and experiences of coherence among all our presently occurring experiences and memories, and so on. Of course this goes on unconsciously or nonpropositionally most of the time, but the process is the same then as when it is fully cognitive.
As I'll note again below, just because a process of reasoning is unconscious does not mean we believe its conclusions for no reason. Thus, we take for granted that a science textbook tells us the truth about what scientists have observed, but we don't take this for granted for no reason. We have accumulated a great deal of evidence regarding the reliability not only of science textbooks themselves, but of the processes and events that go into producing their contents. Just because we don't reason through all this evidence every time we pick up a science book doesn't mean our trust in that book is properly basic.
Likewise, when we intuit that someone is lying to us, that they are lying is not a properly basic belief. If we can't work out specific reasons why that intuition is valid, we won't be justified in trusting it at all, while if we can work out such reasons, then we're not looking at a properly basic belief. Even when our intuition has become reliable enough that we trust it even without examination, this too we do for a reason, such as the fact that we have a large number of experiences of memories of our intuition's success in relevantly similar cases. That these experiences exist is properly basic, but not what we deduce from them, like that our intuition in such cases is reliable. Thus, we don't have to work out all the steps of reasoning or all the evidence we actually are working from, but we still need all that evidence and reasoning in order to be warranted in believing something. A belief can only be properly basic if we don't have all that evidence and reasoning stashed away in our subconscious, and yet still are warranted in maintaining that belief.
Memory's Role in Reasoning
Fourth, one thing I don't explain in Sense and Goodness is that I believe deductive reason involves simultaneous perception of the major and minor premise (while induction is simply deduction with the major premise being some general inductive principle). So we do not require memory to arrive at a conclusion from premises. We only require a memory to previously store, and thus recall at the present, the premises we are using in our reasoning at any given time. Obviously, many remembered premises are also the conclusions of previous acts of reasoning, but we still don't require memory to reason, only to recall the results of past acts of reasoning. If you want to understand the importance of this simultaneity in reasoning processes, see my lengthy discussion in another article, which was also cited in Sense and Goodness, although it addresses zillions of other issues besides, and is altogether inordinately long and dry: Critical Review of Victor Reppert's Defense of the Argument from Reason (2004), though for the present question, you can skip to the section there on AfUC. Or just forget this obscurity and continue on here.
All Epistemologies Are Fundamentally Normative
Last but not least, another thing I could have included in Sense and Goodness is that all epistemologies are fundamentally built on axioms that are, in fact, imperative propositions. In other words, every epistemology is constructed on top of a set of "I ought to believe x when y" propositions, and therefore, if it is true that any epistemology ought to be adopted by everyone, then epistemology as such is a subset of morality, and it would be immoral to knowingly violate the axioms of a true epistemology. That's another issue (regarding the ethics of belief), but it's important here for one particular reason I did not bring out in Sense and Goodness:
All epistemological arguments end with a set of imperative propositions, not with a lone set of non-normative facts. For example:
- "I ought not to believe x when I have no reason to believe x"
- "I ought to believe x when x coheres with all other current experiences (including experiences of memories, etc.), with less fudging than any alternative I know"
- "I ought to believe the relative probability of x is y when y is (or is as close as I can know to) the actual frequency of x relative to ~x in my experience"
That these principles (and others one could add to the list) are irreducible doesn't mean I can't defend them. It's just that any such defense will ultimately rest on some normative premise, such as "things will go better for me if I follow these principles," which is itself, ultimately, a conclusion based on those same principles. Hence we always end up in some circular argument, a fact even Plantinga admits of his own, and in fact every conceivable epistemology--even God's. Yes, God as well. For even He can never be certain he is not the victim of a Cartesian Demon, or that there isn't some flaw in his knowledge or memory or reasoning. I already articulated this same point about my own worldview, again, in Note 6 of Critical Review of Victor Reppert (2004).
This circularity ends infinite regress, which is why no epistemology really suffers from the problem of regress. How so? Well, remember how there are always two lines of questioning, one about the facts and one about the principles we use to interpret those facts? Okay:
The first line of questioning ends with a full dead stop at some finite set of undeniable experiences. For once you end up with an answer that cannot be false, you can no longer ask, "How do you know it's true?" How do I know? Because it can't be false. It would be nonsensical to then ask, "How do you know that?" For if I said it were false, then I would be saying "this experience exists right now and this experience does not exist right now," which is a meaningless sentence, because it asserts what it also denies, and therefore it describes nothing (see pages 42-43 and 188-91 of Sense and Goodness). Thus, obviously, I cannot fail to know I am having such-and-such an experience right now. To express doubt about this would then be to question not the facts, but the rules I choose to follow when interpreting those facts (in this case, how I choose to define "true" and "false").
Hence we end up with the second line of questioning, about our inductive and deductive principles. But all such lines of questioning end with a circular argument: our principles are true because our principles are true. There is therefore nowhere else to go. This is like Hawking's notion of nutshell cosmology, where there is no first moment of time because as you approach it you eventually just curve back around and end up where you started. In such a case the timeline is not infinite, and yet has no starting point. Because it's circular. So, too, in epistemology: once your only justification for adopting a principle is the principle itself, you can no longer ask, "How do you know that principle is true?" How do I know? Because I observe it to be true. How do I know I observe it to be true? That I am observing it to be true is an undeniable experience. Hence we are back to the first line of questioning, about what I am experiencing, where all questioning ends.
Thus, there is no regress. But the underlying normative nature of this end game must not be overlooked. In effect, my entire epistemology rests on a conjunction of just three premises, which I will greatly oversimplify here:
- A: "Following certain principles will probably make things go better for me than not following them will"
- B: "If I want things to go better for me, I ought to follow the principles that will probably make things go better for me than not following them will"
- C: "I want things to go better for me."
Thus, the buck stops with the evidence, and the evidence is a finite collection of undeniable experiences. Though these undeniable experiences are also compatible with a contrary hypothesis (~A or ~B), the experiences I am having do not entail that contrary hypothesis unless we introduce an intervening premise, such as "a Cartesian Demon has fooled with my memory and is deceiving my senses." Thus, as long as we have no reason to believe any such premise, then we have no reason to believe any hypothesis contrary to A and B. In other words, among the total collection of our undeniable experiences at any given moment, all we have is evidence supporting A and B and none supporting ~A or ~B, which is to say, none supporting any premise that would have to be true in order for ~A or ~B to be true.
Circularity arrives here at the point when we decide on the most fundamental principle underlying all of the above, which I will call principle K:
- K: "I ought to believe x when I have (a) evidence supporting x (or x is undeniable) and (b) no evidence supporting what would have to be true for me to have (a) and yet for x to be false."
- ~K: "I ought to doubt x when I have (a) evidence supporting x (or x is undeniable) and (b) no evidence supporting anything else that would have to be true for me to have (a) and yet for x to be false."
We are thus faced with an ultimate choice: K or ~K? Which principle do I follow? I can try them both out right now, and immediately see that following K leads to correct predictions and the satisfaction of my desires and the fulfillment of my plans, while following ~K does much poorly in all three respects. I can repeat this test endlessly. It still remains that a Cartesian Demon could be meddling with my mind so that I keep falsely experiencing and remembering the good performance of K and the poor performance of ~K, when all the while, unbeknownst to me, ~K has been performing better than K (or equally as well). But as long as any CD keeps doing this, what's the difference between that, and K actually performing well and ~K performing poorly?
Hence my Matrix analogy in Sense and Goodness (p. 32), which Chris singles out: until you allow that there could be some potential difference between the world created for us by a CD and a real world, there is no difference between them that matters. The world created by the CD is a real world: our desires are actually fulfilled, our plans are actually realized, our predictions actually come true, and continue to do so, always and forever (until we're dead). Only if you allow that it might not be "always and forever" does it become meaningful to talk about a difference, because then, and only then, is there a difference that matters. But then we have the possibility of predicting different outcomes for each hypothesis, and so the two hypotheses become testable, which means the CD hypothesis is only ever confirmed when its unique predictions come true. But as long as it remains unconfirmed, we continue to lack any reason to believe that hypothesis--even if (unbeknownst to us) it turns out to be true.
Ultimately, this is a conundrum Plantinga faces every bit as much as I. So pointing out the inevitable circularity of rejecting all Cartesian Demon hypotheses is no objection to my epistemology, since it is equally an objection against all epistemologies, thus forcing us against the rocks of the same dilemma: we simply have to choose how to behave. Will it be in accordance with K, or ~K? We constantly observe, in every waking moment that we bother to test, that the undeniable facts of both our desires and our immediate and present experiences are only satisfied by following K. Therefore it makes no sense to follow ~K, even if it happens to be the case (unbeknownst to us) that ~K is true. So that's where all epistemologies end: "I ought to follow K."
This is not a properly basic belief, because we have a reason to follow K rather than ~K, namely the undeniable fact that we desire things, combined with the undeniable fact that in any moment we put to the test, we will often experience the fulfillment of our desires only when following K, but not when we follow ~K. These two facts do not combine into a deductive proof that K is true, but they do provide a reason to follow K, and as long as we have no reason not to follow K, having a reason to follow K is a sufficient reason to do so. On the other hand, all of those reasons, which are all that justify my embracing the fundamental principle underlying the whole of my epistemology, are undeniable facts, and therefore properly basic. Regress ends.
[Update: There are also Bayesian (mathematically deductive) arguments against all Cartesian Demon hypotheses: see Epistemology without Insurmountable Regress or Fallacious Circularity (2015).]