Facts and foundationalism

Asserting the primacy of facts in knowledge is foundationalist.

On the one hand, even if we are foundationalist about knowledge there are primary entities other than facts: axioms, postulates, definitions of all kinds (operative, stimulative, nominal, etc.) On the other hand, while foundationalism gives useful insights about knowledge it does not require the additional claim that it exhaustively describes knowledge. Foundationalism is any view of knowledge that takes it as like a building-like, but this is clearly very different from an account that, say, sees it as a network of associations.

So is knowledge like making a building or making a phone call, i.e. are we looking for a solid ground to build up a continuing set of arguments or are we taking intelligible content from some source in addition to responding to it with intelligible contributions of our own? On the first account the fact-theory opposition can play an important role, on the second it would be either out-of-place or a dangerous delusion, and at any rate the question itself is an obvious false dilemma.

As Midgley points out, this is not a truth about facts as such but about any account of knowledge or reality that divides it into levels, i.e. into fundamental realities (atomic particles, facts, God, laws of nature) and derivative realities (emergent phenomena, theories, creation, unreflective experience/ folk theories). Any such division runs into the problem of preserving the reality of both the fundamental and the secondary: We can’t set out to explain how one could form a solid house only to conclude that houses are somehow not real.

The attempts to save the reality of both the fundamental and the derivative have been more successful in the God-Creation account of different levels, allowing for both robust natural science and theology while also articulating a theory of analogy that allowed for one level to be a tool for knowing another level (along with the very helpful definition of creation precisely as the conferring of being or existence). Naturalist attempts have been less successful: Sean Carroll probably goes further than most in asserting the reality of the emergent, but in the face of any direct question about it he responds either by saying that the question is poorly framed or that anything is as real as we need it to be. The Naturalist problem is probably structural: how, after all, could it allow for an analogy of being or for anything conferring existence as such? How could its monistic epistemology allow for plurality in being?

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