Foundationalism is a theory of epistemic knowledge and justification that provides an answer to the infinite regress problem of justification. According to foundationalism, all beliefs that are epistemically justified are either basic, or trace back in a suitable way to a basic belief. Basic beliefs are beliefs that are epistemically justified independent of any justificatory relations to other beliefs. These basic beliefs serve as the stopping point on the chain of epistemic support so as to avoid an infinite regress regarding justification.
An account of basic beliefs must state which beliefs count as basic, and in virtue of what are these beliefs epistemically justified. Among foundationalists there are disagreements regarding both of these issues (as well as the issue of which relations are suitable for conferring justification to non-basic beliefs). Timothy McGrew defends a strong foundationalist account of basic beliefs. McGrew identifies three classes of basic beliefs: (i) second-order beliefs about beliefs (the belief: ‘this is a belief of mine’), first-order beliefs about immediate sensations (the belief: ‘I am experiencing this’), and beliefs regarding the content of one’s memory (the belief: ‘this is how it seems to me (that it was)’).
The claim is that these beliefs are justified independent of any justificatory relations to other beliefs since they are incorrigible or infallible or certain – one cannot be mistaken about their truth (or, necessarily, if believed, then they are true). The truth of these propositions is guaranteed in believing them through the way that their content is accessed by the believer – by being referentially formed (this prevents all beliefs in necessary truths from being basic). If there were nothing for ‘this’ to refer to in the belief ‘I am experiencing this’, such a belief could not be formed (a proposition would not be there); and when ‘this’ does refer, the belief must be true in virtue of reference (what one is experiencing will be picked out by ‘this’, and one is experiencing what one is experiencing).
Several problems emerge for this strong foundationalist account of basic beliefs. First, it seems that beliefs about one’s inner states (current experiences, beliefs, memories) are rare. We typically form beliefs like ‘there is a computer in front of me’ and beliefs of the form ‘I am experiencing this’, yet these latter beliefs are to be the foundation of our justified empirical beliefs on the strong foundationalist account. If these beliefs are rare, then there is not much of a foundation to ground the justification of non-basic beliefs. As such, the strong foundationalist account of basic beliefs would have the result that not many of our beliefs about the external world are justified.
The strong foundationalist can respond by claiming that such basic beliefs are typically present, but that they simply are not often consciously entertained. As such, these beliefs would be tacit or dispositional or simply subconscious. This response brings in complicating details regarding the nature of belief, but an argument is still needed regarding why one should think that there are such tacit or dispositional or subconscious beliefs. McGrew’s claim is that having an experience is equivalent to or entails having a tacit referential belief about that experience.
This claim is hard to accept. Having an experience or a belief is a distinct mental state from having a belief about that experience or a belief about that belief. As such, it seems to be at least logically possible for the two distinct states to come apart: that one could have the experience without the belief, or that one could have the belief without the experience. Either possibility seems to lead to trouble for the strong foundationalist.
If one can have the belief about the experience without the experience itself (or alternatively, the belief about the belief without the belief itself), then these beliefs are not incorrigible. These beliefs about experiences can go wrong since they can be had without the relevant experiences. However, although one may be able to believe the same proposition as the referentially formed belief without having the relevant experience, one is not able to have that belief in the appropriate indexical fashion. As mentioned above, is there is no experience for the ‘this’ to pick out, there is not a proposition there to be believed. As such, the defender of strong foundationalism can still claim that the reflectively formed beliefs are incorrigible despite the fact that the same proposition, if believed under a different guise would not be incorrigible (propositional incorrigibility is to be distinguished from doxastic incorrigibility).
A deeper problem lies in the possibility that one may have the relevant experience without forming the referential belief. Since the belief and the experience seem to be distinct states, this too seems to be a logical possibility. It could be that two individuals have the same experience of a book and each form the belief that there is a book in the room, yet only one of them forms the relevant tacit and reflectively formed belief about that experience. In such a situation, strong foundationalism has it that only the individual that forms such a belief can be justified in the belief that there is a book in the room. This seems to make an individual’s epistemic justification an accident of an individual’s psychology. In this case, each individual seems to have as good of evidence for the belief that there is a book in room as the other, and it is hard to see how a tacit belief could make such a justificatory difference. Given such a possibility, the strong foundationalist account of basic beliefs seems to get it wrong.