Please note that this is part one of a three part discussion
Foundationalism dictates that knowledge, in the form of justified true belief, must be grounded in immediately evident, or non-inferentially justified basic beliefs. It therefore condones a form of knowledge that is hierarchichal, with epistemic chains arising from these basic beliefs. Coherentism, on the other hand, holds that all justified belief is a matter of structural inference, and that increasing coherence de facto increase justification. As such, this framework condones a web of beliefs that is ultimately justified through inferential loops. Yet, although these two theories may seem incompatible on the surface, is that really the case? If we can formulate a theory of knowledge that combines a foundationalist structure, with a form of coherentist justification, we can formulate a theory of psuedo-fallibilist foundationalism. For, if sense data, perception, and past experience are significant sources of our basic beliefs, and if we have immediate and not inferential justification for them, than we must have a theory of knowledge that bottoms out with fallibilism. So, perhaps, for this reason, we can view the traditional conception of knowledge as an ideal, and coherence theory as a pragmatic and useful tool. And, together it may be that they form a more commonsensical view of epistemology. But before we explain how this conflation may work, we must first understand the origins of these two apparently divergent views, and why they are plausable solutions to the epistemic regress argument.
The coherence theory of justification, from the holistic point of view, reduces the source of all justification to logical consistency, symmetry, and a lack of anomalous beliefs. As such, all claims are mutually explanatory, and a proposition is justified IFF it is a member of a coherent set. So, for this reason, coherence is always the logical property of a set and never a single proposition in isolation. As such, if we assume an empirical property E, we can discover if E is justified, by comparing E to the entire belief set. If the entire set is more coherent when E is added, then E is justified. Yet, although the clearest example of incoherence may be inconsistent belief, mere inconsistency in and of itself does not necessarily provide justification enough. So, as a consequence, the comprehensiveness requirement is deeply important. The comprehensiveness requirement is a form of completeness that incorporates empirical data. As Such, the main attraction of coherence theory lies in the core idea that, if a system of beliefs coheres, and if it is also comprehensive, then it is at least likely to be correct. Subsequently, the descriptive is the prescriptive.
So, how does a holistic coherentist address the epistemic regress problem? From this perspective, the argument never gets off the ground, since a coherentist outrightly rejects the notion that all justification is linear or hierarchichal. Anf, for this same reason, the coherentist can avoid endorsing a complex form of circular reasoning, since a web of belief that is non-linear, simply circumnavigates the problem’s existence. Since circular justification requires that we move in an epistemic chain from a conclusion through premises, and then back to the conclusion as a premise, if we deny that there is a chain, we deny that there is either a regress or circularity. Consequently, coherence employs a concept of symmetry- if p justifies q; it is okay that q justifies p, as long as there are no anomalies. Each will be a small part of the justification for the other. But if this is the case, what grounds the web? Or, for that matter, does our web even need to be grounded? If we posit that our web of coherence must utilize some means of support, what will ensue is a form of fallibilist foundationalism.
Some philosophers that endorse coherence theory, such as Dancy, additionally posit that when we are maximizing coherence we are de facto maximizing truth. But, clearly, this is where some trouble can occur. For, if we define objective truth as coherence, we risk buying into a worrisome form of epistemic relativity. Clearly, a system of coherent beliefs, no matter how coherent, does not necessarily equate to objective truth. If we think that this is the case, we are missing the boat on what truth objectively is. Dancy also believes that there is nothing sacrosanct about any basic belief, and that all of our justification is a matter of structural inference. The problem here is that our web is left unanchored and floating. So, although this view may allow for the constant revision of a belief set, it simply goes too far. Consequently, although Dancy’s version of coherence theory may be a pure and pragmatic approach to the theory of knowledge, the idea that there are no priveleged basic beliefs, or that our web is not in need of grounding, renders it unworkable.
In order to motivate this argument further, however, we must first explicate the structural claim that foundationalism makes in regards to our priveleged basic beliefs. Traditional foundationalism views knowledge as an epistemic chain of justification, that concludes in a final non-inferential, or immediately justified belief. As such, these immediately justified basic beliefs can include a priori statements, self-evident beliefs, or first-person cognitive experience. And, importantly, in order to stop an infinite regress, they must be self-justified or justified by something other than a proposition. So, in this respect, we can view knowledge as an ideal cognitive state that contains both certainty and justification at its foundation. with a solid structure for our epistemic inquiry built on top. Consequently, reason, as a reference to the Cartesian viewpoint of clear and distinct perception, becomes the perception that allows us to determine what knowledge is. Yet, a large problem with this perspective lies in its unattainability. It is obvious that the struggle for indubitability can ultimately lead to the possession of virtually no knowledge whatsoever. Nonetheless, the simplistic fact that ideals may very well be unattainable does not mean that we should abandon them either. After all, is it not the case that most of our human ideals are rarely acheived?
An additional argument in favor of foundationalism is that it more clearly responds to the problem of an epistemic regress, since instead of circumnavigating the issue, it tackles it head on. The argument basically assumes that since we have justified basic beliefs, the ultimate justification for those beliefs cannot be produced by circular reasoning, and therefore the chain of reasons must terminate in other non-inferentially justified beliefs. So, following, no proposition ever plays a role in justifying itself because the structure is asymmetrical. In other words, if P justifies Q, Q cannot justify P. Thus, by denying the claim that justification is always inferential, the traditional foundationalist requires that our basic beliefs be a priori or self-evident facts of the matter. Yet again, as with the aforementioned indubitability, are we aiming too high? And, more importantly, are we stopping the regress at the risk of losing what it is to engage in humanistic inquiry and reasoning?