The distinction between positism and foundationalism is lost on those who cannot hear the word “justified” as anything but a past participle, implying that some act or relation of justifying has occurred whereby a belief is justified by something else that serves as a reason for it. For foundationalists, “justified” simply connotes a favorable epistemic status, which a belief may have even though the subject has no reason for it. In this connection, another term, such as “evident” or “credible,” might be less misleading than “justified.” (pg. 178)
…the questions that we raise and our doubts depend upon the fact that some propositions are exempt from doubt, are as it were like hinges on which those turn.
That is to say, it belongs to the logic of our scientific investigations that certain things are in deed not doubted.
But it isn’t that the situation is like this: We just can’t investigate everything, and for that reason we are forced to rest content with assumption. If I want the door to turn, the hinges must stay put. (On Certainty, §§341-3)
Mylan Engel Jr.'s “Positism: The Unexplored Solution to the Epistemic Regress Problem” develops and defends the view that a justification-conferring chain of reasons may legitimately begin with an unjustified belief. Engel holds that, under certain circumstances, reasoning itself can be justification generating, and not just justification transmitting. He argues that a person S can be justified in coming to believe a proposition p on the basis of an unjustified posit R, provided S does not realize she is unjustified in believing R and she has no defeaters that defeat R's status as a reason for p. Engel maintains that when one believes a proposition p, one is rationally committed to what is knowingly entailed by p, unless one is prepared to abandon p in light of those entailments. Accordingly, the propositions one believes provides defeasible reasons for believing the propositions they knowingly entail. Engel characterizes his positist view as a form of nondoxastic coherentism that is compatible with other meta-epistemic views. In particular, Engel is keen to show that his view is compatible with the existence of basic beliefs grounded in sense experience and also compatible with a version of infinitism that holds that inference itself is justification enhancing. (Ibid., pg. 141)
Engel further intends to evaluate positism with respect to “personal justification,” meaning he is concerned with the circumstances under which a person is worthy of epistemic praise for believing that p (cf. Engel, “Personal and Doxastic Justification in Epistemology,” 1992). Engel says that this sort of epistemic justification occurs when one believes “that p only if she has an undefeated reason for believing that p” (pg. 147). In this context, her reasons must be “internally accessible;” that is, her reason “to believe that p is a consideration, from [her] egocentric point of view, that suggests that p is true” (pg. 147).
Engel then provides a sort of useful glossary of terms. Notably, a belief or experience is considered “basic” if a subject is “noninferential” and “immediately justified” in having it (pg. 148). Doxastic [foundations of coherence] theories assume “only beliefs can serve as reasons for other beliefs,” whereas nondoxastic theories reject this assumption (pg. 148). Most of what else Engel mentions may be here passed over, as their primary function just seems to be to show the number of contrasting theories of epistemic justification in terms of structure and nature. The specific theory that is worth mentioning is the one Engel defends. The following closes out this section:
...there is a third form of coherence theory that epistemologists have not recognized. Like foundations theories, modest nondoxastic coherence theories acknowledge that some reasoning is linear and admit that some beliefs are basic, for example, simple perceptual beliefs. Unlike foundations theories, however, modest linear noncircular nondoxastic coherence theories insist we can be justified in holding nonbasic beliefs that do not ultimately trace their justification back to basic beliefs. In section 3, I argue that a Positist version of this sort of Modest Coherentism (PMC) allows us to solve the regress problem for ex ante justification as it most frequently arises. (pg. 149)Clearly, Engel's views indeed live up to his self-titled description as an epistemic “ecumenical beast” (pg. 157). He thinks epistemic justification can be had in a number of ways, but while some of these variations are interesting, I will restrict myself to commenting on why and how he thinks positism suffices.
...the epistemic regress problem was put forth as a skeptical challenge designed to undermine the very possibility of rational belief. In its contemporary guise, the regress problem has been formulated as an argument from elimination in favor of foundationalism - one designed to show that basic beliefs must exist if we are to be epistemically justified in believing anything at all. (pg. 149)One comment that should be made at this point also relates back to Engel's epistemic ecumenicism, and that is with regards to the weak standard Engel has set for the goal of epistemic justification to be met. I don't have a problem with much of Engel's terminology outlined in the previous section, but if all that it takes for one to be justified in coming to believe p is that he have an undefeated (but not undefeatable) reason for it, and if what suffices as a reason is that it merely suggests to his mind that p is true, then one could easily imagine scenarios in which two people could be justified in coming to believe contradictory propositions. Does Engel think this qualifies as rational belief? According to the original context of the skeptical challenge to which Engel alludes, I don't see how he could. But then I fail to see how the skeptical challenge can be addressed by Engel in the first place. It would be one thing if Engel wished to propose positism in a different context, but in the beginning of this section he has made it clear he knows the original point of the regress argument and believes PMC provides a solution. But unless he were willing to argue against the much more stringent (indeed, infallibilistic) skeptical standard of epistemic justification - which he does not do here, in any case - that would require he deal with the skeptical challenge on its own terms, not his. The force of this point will, I hope, become clearer in the following discussion.
Next, Engel lays out premises of the regress argument for ex ante justification:
A1. S is justified in coming to believe that p iff either (1) S is immediately justified in coming to believe that p or (2) S is mediately justified in coming to believe that p.
A2. S is mediately justified in coming to believe that p iff (1) S has a doxastic reason q for p (where q might be a conjunction), and (2) S is ex post justified (either mediately or immediately) in believing q. (pgs. 149-150)He then reasons how a foundationalist would use these premises to argue that foundationalism must be true. Clearly, he doesn't believe this succeeds. He makes three points, none of which I believe are persuasive.
Firstly: “Even if sound, all RA shows is that there must be basic beliefs, if we are to have any justified beliefs at all, and it remains a theoretical possibility that justification skepticism is correct” (pg. 151). One may claim “no one is justified in believing anything,” but those words only have intelligible, definite meaning in the context of the claimant being epistemically justified in assigning said meaning. Otherwise, it could mean anything, including “everyone is justified in believing anything,” In other words, justification skepticism cannot be consistently maintained, and any argument to the contrary presupposes this is true, Engel's own argument to this effect included.
Secondly: “...even if there are basic beliefs, as RA allegedly shows, in order for foundationalism to be correct, there must be enough basic beliefs to support the structure of our justified nonbasic beliefs, and RA does nothing to show the latter” (pg. 151). He goes on to say he does believe perceptual beliefs are properly basic (I'm not sure if Engel distinguishes between basic beliefs and properly basic beliefs) if they are grounded in perceptual experiences, but he argues many nonbasic beliefs we think we are justified in believing, like moral and philosophical beliefs, cannot be traced back to basic beliefs. This is backwards, and Engel repeats this mistake a few times. A foundationalist reasons from foundations, not to them; he only is in a position to know what is a justified nonbasic belief because he was first in a position to know what is a justified basic belief. Assuming certain nonbasic beliefs are justified and then using that to rule out the possibility of there being a sufficient number of justified basic beliefs to account for these is to put the cart before the horse. If this is the external critique it appears to be, a foundationalist will find it unpersuasive simply because he does not operate from the same bases as Engel, so to speak.
Thirdly: “Take the current debate between foundationalism, coherentism, infinitism, and positism. No matter which of these positions you believe is correct, you won't be able to trace this philosophical belief back to properly basic beliefs” (pg. 151). Engel cites Plantinga in his footnote to this comment, further adding that this would make foundationalism self-refuting. But why Engel thinks, for instance, that the belief “divine revelation is self-authenticating” cannot be basic, I don't know. I think that belief could put one in a position to make the regress argument for foundationalism. If Engel's flat denial is due to people disagreeing about things regarding God, I don't see how that is relevant. People can disagree about everything. Does that imply there can be no incorrigible beliefs? No. Here again the importance of discussing infallibilism is demonstrated.
On the plausible assumptions that (i) we ought to be able to reason the way we should reason and (ii) ought implies can, the correct epistemic norms, whatever they are, must be such that we are actually capable of following them and guiding our beliefs in conformity with them. Accordingly, an adequacy constraint on any regulative epistemic norm is that it be followable. A person cannot be criticized for failing to follow a norm that is impossible to follow, for no one can be expected to follow an unfollowable norm. (pg. 153)
Reasoning in this way is extremely efficient. If we had to stop and reevaluate our beliefs each time before we reasoned from them, we would draw very few conclusions. The point is not merely that we do regularly engage in default reasoning but that, given both the efficiency and the self-correcting nature of such reasoning, it is entirely rational for us to do so. Objection: But won't engaging in default reasoning make us prone to countless irremediable errors? Response: No, for when we employ default reasoning, we're constantly engaged in what John Pollock (1986, 56-57) describes as “primed research” - the subconscious monitoring of our reasoning, constantly being on the lookout for reasoning errors and potential defeaters for our reasons. In this way faulty reasoning and faulty beliefs are constantly getting corrected, as new information become available. (pg. 156)
(PJ) S is justified in coming to believe that q on the basis of her belief p, which she's ex post unjustified in believing, IF:
(i) S believes that p,
(ii) S believes that p entails q (or that p makes q sufficiently probable),
(iii) S appreciate the fact that (p & p entails q) is a reason to believe q,
(iv) S does not realize that she is unjustified in believing p,
(v) S has no reason to believe ~q, i.e., S is not aware of any rebutting defeaters for p as a reason for q,
(vi) S has no reason to deny that p would not be true unless q were true, i.e., S is not aware of any undercutting defeaters for p as a reason for q, and
(vii) S has no reason to believe ~p, i.e. S it not aware of any negating defeaters for p.
As for the arbitrariness thesis, PMC's combination of default reasoning and primed search for errors mitigates against the charge of arbitrariness. Although S might have acquired some belief B inappropriately/arbitrarily, the fact B has persisted, that is, B hasn't been purged due to countervailing considerations, despite S's having been on the lookout for such considerations, makes B more than just an arbitrary belief. The longer B survives this primed-search-self-monitoring process, the less arbitrary B becomes, True, even if B persists indefinitely, S won't be justified in believing B, unless she acquires an undefeated reason for B, but S needn't be justified in believing B in order for B to cease to be arbitrary. (pg. 158)I would have been interested to see Engel address this more fully. For instance, at what point can B entirely cease to be arbitrary? What does it mean for B to be arbitrary or non-arbitrary, given that it can in both cases be unjustified? I didn't even realize this was a concern until the last paragraph of the paper.
To summarize my findings, I do not believe positism is a solution to the regress problem, nor do I think it can be synthesized with any other theory to nevertheless epistemically justify individuals in certain cases. It may have some function in the context of permitted beliefs.