Two Arguments Against Foundationalism, and in Support of Coherentism
Larry Bonjour's defense of coherentism is as follows. First, he grants that the epistemic
regress argument does show that a foundationalist approach is prima facie plausible. He argues,
however, that when foundationalism is carefully examined, it turns out to suffer from fatal flaws.
In support of the latter claim, Bonjour offers two, interrelated arguments, each of which concerns
the issue of whether it is reasonable, in the final analysis, to believe that some beliefs can be
justified without being supported by evidence.
Argument 1: Doxastic Ascent
Formulations of this type of argument are found in Ernie Sosa's article, "The Raft and the
Pyramid: Coherence Versus Foundations in the Theory of Knowledge", and in Larry Bonjour's
"A Critique of Foundationalism". Sosa, for example, offers the following summary:
"A belief B is foundationally justified for S in virtue of having a property F only if S is justified
in believing (1) that most at least of his beliefs with property F are true, and (2) that B has
property F. But this means that belief B is not foundational after all, and indeed that the very
notion of (empirical) foundational belief is incoherent." (Pojman's anthology, 260)
A similar, but fuller statement of the argument is offered by Bonjour:
"If we let 'Ï' represent this feature, then for a belief B to qualify as basic in an acceptable
foundationalist account, the premises of the following justificatory argument must themselves be
at least justified:
(i) Belief B has feature Ï.
(ii) Beliefs having feature Ï are highly likely to be true.
Therefore, B is highly likely to be true.
Notice further that while either premise taken separately might turn out to be justifiable on an a
priori basis (depending on the particular choice of Ï), it seems clear that they could not both be
thus justifiable. For B is ex hypothesi an empirical belief, and it is hard to see how a particular
empirical belief could be justified on a purely a priori basis. And if we now assume, reasonably
enough, that for B to be justified for a particular person (at a particular time) it is necessary, not
merely that a justification for B exist in the abstract, but that the person in question be in
cognitive possession of that justification, we get the result that B is not basic after all since its
justification depends on that of at least one other empirical belief. If this is correct, strong
foundationalism is untenable as a solution to the regress problem (and an analogous argument
will show weak foundationalism to be similarly untenable)." (Pojman's anthology, 216)