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What is foundationalism?

Question: "What is foundationalism?"

Foundationalism is an aspect of epistemology, the philosophy concerning how we think, patterns of thought, and how we arrive at knowledge. Foundationalism is an answer to the problem of “regress” when trying to justify an argument. All arguments are based on other arguments and are justified by those arguments. Then, those arguments have to be justified, and so on. Foundationalism says that there is a basic set of beliefs that do not need to be justified because they are obviously true. They are axiomatic, like the “self-evident” truths mentioned in the Declaration of Independence.

In foundationalism, then, knowledge is split into basic and non-basic beliefs. The basic beliefs are the building blocks upon which non-basic beliefs are structured. Classical foundationalism asserts that basic beliefs must be infallible in order to be truly foundational; modest foundationalism says that a perception can be a justified basic belief unless proven otherwise by obvious contrary evidence.

One of the best examples of foundationalism is in the work of French philosopher René Descartes, who was the first to explore it. He proposed the question “if I were being deceived by an Evil Demon, and all my perceptions of the world around me were false, how would I know?” In answer to this question, he said, “I think, therefore I am” (Meditations, 7:140). Descartes was a rationalist. Rationalists believe that knowledge is gained through reason, while empiricists believe knowledge is gained by experience (there are many combinations of these two approaches in various philosophies). In saying, “I think, therefore I am,” Descartes was making a rationalist statement and asserting foundationalism. That statement was, for him, the basic belief that required no justification. Descartes used the knowledge of his own existence as a basis for other conclusions. His existence had no need for justification; therefore, it was a basic belief. From this solid position, Descartes proposed that he could understand truth rationally, even if everything around him was designed to deceive him.

Descartes’ assumption that he could arrive at truth with his rational mind, despite the entire world’s being a deception, is fascinating from a biblical perspective. First of all, the Bible does assert that the entire world is under the power of the “Evil Demon,” namely, Satan (1 John 5:19). Also, mankind apparently does not see the deception, not by reason or experience. “You were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath” (Ephesians 2:1–3).

The very next verse starts with the words “But God. . .” (ESV) and shows how God proactively makes man alive; that is, God gives us everything needed to escape the snare of the “Evil Demon” (Ephesians 2:4–9). But the conclusion is clear: without God’s intervention, we would all be deceived. As rational as Descartes was, he could not think his way to absolute truth. The source of truth is the Word of God (John 17:17), not the human intellect.

Foundationalism is correct in that there is a basic set of beliefs that require no justification. We can trust the words of God to always be true, and we can base other truths upon them. There is no need to justify the Word, because He is Truth itself (John 1:1–5; 14:6). True foundationalism starts with the Lord Jesus: “No one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:11). Jesus Christ is the cornerstone of the biblical foundation (Ephesians 2:20), and a believer’s trust in Him is the most basic belief. If we start with that cornerstone, we are secure; to build elsewhere is to lack a solid foundation (Matthew 7:24–27).

Recommended Resource: Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview by William Lane Craig & J.P. Moreland

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