Alston’s “Epistemic Level Confusion” and Disguised Fideism

Copyright © 2005 Bruce W. Hauptli

Traditional justificatory rationalists espouse a maxim which requires that we justify all of our beliefs, theories, or commitments.  Skeptics take the traditional rationalists’ justificatory requirement seriously—they demand that these rationalists justify their commitment to their rationalistic orientation.  Given the rationalists’ model of justification as appeal to rational standards, however, any rational argument for the rationalists’ commitment to rationalism will itself have to presuppose the acceptability of some rational ground.  Skeptics maintain that presupposing the standard to be grounded engenders a question-begging defense, and that appealing to some other rational standard engenders a regress which merely delays the question.  Whatever criterion rationalists propose for cognitive evaluation and validation, the skeptics maintain, they eventually face the problem of the validation of that criterion.

     Fideists claim that there are some beliefs, theories, and commitments we ought to embrace which we can not rationally justify.  Given the limitations of human reason, they claim, we must accept some beliefs, theories, and commitments on faith.  They believe that the rationalists’ insistence that we limit ourselves to beliefs and actions which can garner rational justification means that we would have to forsake important truths.

     Almost twenty-five years ago, William Alston maintained that traditional skeptical arguments against rationalism are flawed because the skeptics fail to note a distinction between one’s being justified and one’s showing or knowing that one is justified.1  According to Alston, the rationalists’ maxim demands only that there be a “valid epistemic principle” if one’s belief, p, is to be justified.  One’s knowledge of the principle and one’s justification for supposing its existence become relevant only when one questions the justifiability of a higher-level belief q: the belief that one is justified in believing that p.  Alston maintains that the skeptics confuse “epistemic levels” in their criticism of traditional rationalists.  They mistakenly assume that for one’s commitment to a rational standard to be justified, one must be able to show that this is the case—in short, they maintain that we must justify all of our beliefs, theories, or commitments if we are to hold anything rationally.

     In short, skeptical challenges to the traditional justificatory activities of the rationalists have consisted of continuing demands for justification of the rationalists’ claims.  Each time the rationalist maintains that a belief is justified, the skeptic asks the rationalist to show that that claim is justified (until, finally, the skeptic questions the rationalists’ very commitment to rationalism).  According to Alston, however, each time such skeptical challenges are raised, a different challenge is offered—each time the challenge arises at a different level and challenges a different belief.  Thus the rationalists’ chain of justifications need not beg the question because the question will be different each time.  Moreover, there is no a vicious regress here.  The justifiability of the belief p (at any level) does not hinge upon the rationalists’ knowledge of the valid epistemic principle but only upon the principle’s existence.

     If Alston is right here, one might maintain that most traditional rationalists make the same mistake made by the skeptics.  To the extent that they adhere to a thoroughgoing justificationalism (maintaining that we must justify all of our theories, beliefs, and commitments), they ignore the distinction between one’s being justified and one’s showing that one is justified.  Adhering to the distinction, on the other hand, allows them to avoid the skeptical challenge.  I will show that following Alston here, however, promises not to save traditional justificatory rationalism, but to transform the rationalists into fideists.  Alston, of course, may not be adverse to such a result, but many rationalists will not be inclined to adopt the appeal to faith (though in its disguised form of a faith in reason it may seem consistent with their core orientation).

     In an earlier article Alston discusses such level confusions and discusses the underlying rationale for foundationalism.2  As he sees it, the seeming impossibility of one’s having mediately justified beliefs without one’s also possessing immediately justified beliefs is at the core of the foundationalists’ view.  The leading rationale for the rejection of this view is the fact that it appears that the foundationalists are committed to adopting some beliefs in the absence of any reasons which might render them acceptable.  In short, the skeptic would reject the apparent arbitrariness and dogmatism inherent in the foundationalists’ appeal to foundations and rationalists should avoid foundationalism since they should accept no beliefs in the absence of justifications—the acceptance of the foundational beliefs would be fideistic.

     According to Alston, however, there is a straightforward reply to such worries:  

for any belief that one is immediately justified in believing, one may find adequate reasons for accepting the proposition that one is so justified.  The curse (of dogmatism) is taken off immediate justification at the lower level, just by virtue of the fact that propositions at the higher level are acceptable only on the basis of reasons.3

The skeptic believes that foundationalists are committed to the view that “foundations can not be argued for”—hence the charge of dogmatism and arbitrariness.  Once one recognizes the distinction of epistemic levels, however, one can see that this charge is erroneous according to Alston.  Foundationalists need not merely dogmatically assert their foundational belief, p—they may attempt to establish the higher level proposition that they are immediately justified in believing that p (that is, q).  The skeptics’ question as to their justification for believing this yields not a vicious regress but, rather, a yet higher level response.

     Alston’s response to the skeptical challenge and the foundationalists “problem” proffers a modified rationalism which I will call “metaphysically-realistic rationalism.”  Realistic rationalists following Alston maintain that no matter how well-grounded or justified a belief or theory may be, it is always possible that it is in fact false.  That is, they hold that our best possible theories (the best that persons however advanced could conceivably offer) might in fact be false.  These realists maintain that the beliefs and theories a rationalist should embrace are those which are in fact justified, but their metaphysical realism precludes their accepting the sort of epistemic responsibility which traditional justificatory rationalists accept.  They maintain that the justifications which anyone might offer, no matter how advanced their science or epistemology, provide or guarantee that the primary obligation (to embrace only those theories and beliefs which are in fact justified) has been met.

     Clearly, a realistically-minded justificatory rationalist (someone who utilized the realistic response to rescue the traditional justificatory rationalists’ enterprise from the skeptical challenge) would demand that we accept an obligation to do the impossible.  Such a realistic reading of the rationalistic maxim would impose upon us the obligation to accept only those beliefs and theories which are in fact justified.  Given the realistic distinction, one would also have to recognize the distinction between justified beliefs and our justifications.  Yet if the latter are irrelevant to the former so that the best justified beliefs may be those the rational maxim would have us avoid, acceptance of an obligation to justify our beliefs and theories would place us in an untenable position—we would be required to show that our beliefs are in fact justified, accept them only if we can show they are such, and recognize that no justification can establish that a belief or theory is in fact justified.

     It might seem that realistically-minded rationalists could accept the additional responsibility if they adopt the falsificationists’ orientation.  Karl Popper, for example, maintains that while those who follow the “critical” rationalists’ program may never actually arrive at the truth (those theories and beliefs which are, in fact justified), they uncover the inadequacies in their theories and beliefs.  As (critical) rationalists, such falsificationists interpret the rationalistic maxim as implying we aim at the truth and approach this goal when we (tentatively and critically) accept only those beliefs and theories which are falsifiable but not yet falsified.  Here, it seems, rationalists recognize both the primary obligation to hold only those beliefs which, in fact are justified (or true) and also accept an epistemic responsibility akin to that central to the traditional justificatory rationalists’—that we practice fallibilism (critical rationalism).

     As metaphysical realists, however, such theorists must recognize that each falsification is itself only to be tentatively accepted as such.  Later inquiries may well suggest that what was taken to be a decisive falsification of a theory or belief should not have been regarded as such.  That is, they must recognize that the most completely falsified theories may, in fact, be the ones which best accord with objective reality—ones these rationalists should accept.  In short, such falsificationists must recognize a distinction between what one takes to be progress toward truth and actual progress.  Popper, of course, recognizes this distinction and frequently appeals to Xenophanes and his statement that even if we were, by chance, to arrive at the truth, we could not recognize that this was the case.  This creates a problem for falsificationists who would follow Alston and appeal to realism to support their critical rationalism however: they distinguish between what we take to be progressive belief or theory change and those changes which are in fact such and, given their realistic distinction, we have only their fallible statement that the critical method they recommend is truth-conducive as support for their contention that their critical program will lead us toward our goal.4

     The traditional justificatory rationalists’ commitment to their rational maxim (that one should accept no unjustified beliefs, theories, commitments, or evaluations) is what is to distinguish them from the fideists: what is central to the fideistic position is the claim that we can not justify some of our central beliefs, theories, commitments and evaluations—that these must be accepted on faith rather than questioned and justified.  Fideists accept a limitation upon human reason which the justificatory rationalists reject.  In rejecting the idea of such limitations traditional justificationalists incur an obligation to meet the skeptical challenge—they would show that their beliefs, theories, and commitments are in fact justified.  The skeptical challenge, then, is not an external demand imposed by the skeptics upon justificatory rationalists—it is a self-imposed demand.  A healthy skepticism ensures there will be no fideistic moments for these rationalists.  This demand engenders their central difficulty however: they open themselves to the question “What justifies your commitment to your rational standard?”  Whatever they appeal to, the skeptics maintain, their appeal will leave them in an objectionable position: if they appeal to their standard, they beg the question at issue; if they offer no justification, they confess their fideism; and, finally, if they appeal to some other standard, they merely delay the issue and either engender a regress, beg the question at a higher level, or come, ultimately, to confess their fideism.

     For justificatory rationalists to adopt realism recommended by Alston and maintain that their beliefs are justified while also admitting that they are unable to show or establish that this is the case would be for them to adopt a “blind” faith.  Whether they do this at the level of their commitment to the standard, their commitment to that which grounds this standard, or at some other level, they will have failed in their endeavor to adduce a non-arbitrary and nonquestion-begging ground for their commitment which does not engender a regress.  If their commitment to the rational standard (or their commitment to its ground, etc.) is, in fact, justified but they are unable to demonstrate this fact, they will not be able to meet the skeptics’ demand that they justify their commitment.  Yet it is this challenge which they have accepted—they would rationally justify even their commitment to rationalism.  Here the change in levels does not lead to new questions each time.  Though the levels change, the challenge remains the same—that of discovering a non-arbitrary and nonquestion-begging ground which does not engender a vicious regress.  The endeavor of justifying their commitment to rationalism hinges not merely upon the fact of its conformity, then, but also upon the demonstration of this fact.

     Given all of this, realistically-minded rationalists would most likely want to characterize the realistic response to the skeptical dilemma not as a continuation of the traditional justificatory rationalistic enterprise but, rather, as a redefinition of the traditional rationalistic position.  On such a reading, the rationalistic maxim imposes no obligation upon rationalists to justify their theories and commitments—the only obligation it imposes is that they limit themselves to those theories, beliefs, commitments, and evaluations which are, in fact, justified.  Such “level-conscious” realistically-minded rationalists would maintain that traditional rationalists make the same mistake which skeptics make—both groups conflate justified belief and our justifications for our beliefs—they fall prey to the “level confusion” which Alston takes pains to point to.  Since the “level-conscious” realistically-minded rationalists would not accept the epistemic responsibility which the traditional rationalists accepted, they would not require that rationalists accept an obligation which they can never fulfill.

     These level-conscious realistically-minded rationalists will have to allow that their orientation itself is in fact either justified or unjustified however.5  Clearly, their position is paradoxical if the latter is the case: their maxim requires that they reject all beliefs, theories, and commitments which are in fact unjustified and yet it itself is in fact unjustified.  Since the maxim applies to all sorts of theories and beliefs (everyday, scientific, and epistemic), accepting it seems to require that we also reject it—it is self-refuting.  Such an incongruity might be avoided if one chose to champion a maxim which maintains that “One should accept no theories, beliefs, commitments, or evaluations which are unjustified—except this maxim.”  While holding such a view avoids the problem of self-refutation, such a view is not a promising development within the context of the argument between fideism and rationalism.  The central thrust of the rationalists’ position (whether it is construed traditionally or realistically), certainly, is the assertion that one has an obligation to avoid holding such beliefs.  Indeed, not even the fideists or irrationalists maintain one ought to adopt beliefs, standards, theories, commitments, or evaluations which are, in fact, unjustified.  Thus, the price paid by those who would accept such a view is too great.

     Given the other alternative (that the level-conscious realistically-minded rationalists’ orientation is, in fact, justified), however, realistic rationalists must admit that even the fideists may well be rationalists in their sense of the word.  To see this clearly we must note that fideists need not maintain (nor have they traditionally maintained) that one ought to accept those beliefs, theories, commitments, and evaluations which are, in fact, unjustified.  While it is often our unhappy lot to unknowingly believe what is not the case, fideists recommended not that we adopt such beliefs but, rather, they hold that human reason is limited and that some beliefs (beliefs which are, in fact, justified) must be accepted on faith rather than being rationally established or justified).  Some, like Kierkegaard, maintain these truths are actually contrary to those which might be rationally established.6  Others, like Montaigne, maintain these truths are unreachable by rational methods.7  Still others pursue an Augustinian approach which maintains faith should precede reason.8  Whether they recommended a Christian fideism like Pascal, an animal faith like Santayana, or a new mode of nonrational knowing like Bergson, however, fideists maintain that some beliefs which are in fact justified are beyond the bounds of reason and of any possible rational justification.

     Such traditional fideists could, without any inconsistency, embrace the sort of level-conscious realistic rationalism just described.  They could maintain one ought to accept only those beliefs, theories, commitments, and evaluations which are in fact justified; they could offer an evaluative standard which selected those beliefs and commitments which are in fact justified; their standard could, in fact, be justified; and they would, certainly, avidly embrace the level-conscious realistically-minded rationalists’ view that we can not (and should not attempt to) justify our standards and maxim here—they would willingly reject the justificatory responsibility which the level-conscious realistically-minded rationalists reject.  The only epistemic obligation such fideists would impose, then, is one which these rationalists also accept.  While each would indicate which theories and commitments they take to be justified, neither should attempt to justify the standard of evaluation or preference they propose—indeed, each should assert one could not provide any assurance that the proffered standard was, in fact, the one which should be accepted.

     Realistically-minded rationalists would, of course, point out that there is a difference between accepting an obligation and fulfilling it or living according to its demands.  While we and they might not be able to distinguish level-conscious realistically-minded rationalists and fideists, there could nonetheless be a difference here—one of the sets of maxims, standards, and beliefs might, in fact, be justified while the other might not.  Acceptance of metaphysical realism here, however, requires that one recognize that any claim that a particular maxim, standard, or belief is, in fact, the one the rationalists’ maxim recommends (no matter how well-justified this assertion may be) might well be wrong.  In short, even given the assumption that these rationalists’ maxim, evaluative standard, and beliefs are, in fact, justified, they must confess that were one confronted with their maxim, standard, and beliefs on the one hand and those of a fideist on the other: (i) one ought to adopt that orientation which is, in fact, justified; (ii) one can never know which orientation this is (the fact of the matter as to which view is justified is forever hidden from view); and (iii) any justifications one presents as to the preferability of one orientation over the other are irrelevant in terms of fulfilling the obligation specified in (i).

     Indeed, realistically-minded rationalists can not argue against the possibility that both they and the fideists might fulfill the obligation of offering only theories, maxims, and standards which are, in fact, justified—to claim that this could not be the case would be to claim an insight into what possible theories, standards, and maxims are, in fact, justified.  No matter how well-justified such a claim is, level-conscious realistically-minded rationalists must recognize that it may not be correct.  At best, then, even given the assumption that their orientation is, in fact, justified, their assertion that it is and that the fideists’ is not (or more minimally, that they both are not) could only be regarded as an article of “blind” faith on their part.  Clearly the sort of revision of the traditional justificatory rationalists orientation recommended by Alston is substantive in character!

     It is not clear that the level-conscious realistically-minded rationalists will concede this point.  Consider again the version put forth by Alston twenty-five years ago.  While he maintains that rationalists are not obligated to justify their beliefs, theories, or commitments, he wishes to establish he is justified in offering his views.  In effect, it seems that he would combat the appearance of arbitrariness and “blind” faith (on any level) by ascending to a “higher” level.  In short, he attempts, on the “higher” level, to establish that his “lower” level beliefs are justifiably held.  If Alston’s realism is a thoroughgoing one, however, he must recognize that the move to “higher” level beliefs does not blunt the “fideistic” character of the orientation which he recommends.  On any level, all that is relevant is that one’s beliefs, in fact, are justified.  Any “higher” level beliefs which justify one’s belief that one’s “lower” level beliefs are, in fact, justified will themselves presuppose a valid principle (on a still “higher” level): the justification offered on the “second” level for one’s holding a “first” level belief (a justification which is to allow one to escape the “fideistic” and arbitrariness challenges in regard to one’s “first” level commitments) will be accomplished on the “second” level only given a “third” level valid principle which stands outside such a justification.

     Alston’s discussion of the valid principle which he believes must be recognized by any adequate epistemology bears this out.9  According to him, an individual’s “self-warranting” beliefs that he or she is in a certain psychological state (beliefs Alston terms B’s) are in fact justified if there is a “valid self-warranting principle.”  Alston, of course, believes that there is such a principle.  He recognizes that “...the question of whether B’s are self-warranted can be construed as a question about the status of this principle.”10  He would justify his acceptance of both the beliefs and the “self-warranting” principle and this, of course, requires assent to a yet “higher” level.  Here he appeals to a “reliability principle:” be justified a belief must be reliable, must be at least highly likely to be correct....there must be relevant facts about the way in which...the belief is acquired and/or held, such that given these facts it is at least highly likely that a belief of that sort will be correct.11

Appeal to this principle, while it “empowers” the justification of the “self-warranting principle” which “empowers” the justification of various “self-warranting B’s,” leaves us with either a “fideistic” assertion of the “reliability principle” or with the “higher” level task of justifying our belief that this principle is, in fact, justified:

...the fact that a belief was produced by a reliable psychological mechanism is not sufficient to justify a belief about the epistemic status of that belief; for we are often in the dark concerning the reliability, or other features, of what produces our beliefs.12

That is, appeal to the “reliability principle” will establish that we justifiably or validly accept the “self-warranting principle” (which will establish that we justifiably accept the various B’s), but it will leave open the question of whether we justifiably accept the reliability principle.  Of course, for the level-conscious realistically-minded rationalist, what is important is only whether the principle is valid—whether we can show or know that it is such is unimportant.  Only someone prone to “level confusions” would believe that if we can not show that the principle is justifiably accepted, it may not, in fact, be justified!

     Alston’s discussion of the valid principles is addressed to the question of the justification of our epistemic beliefs—he is interested in establishing that his belief that B’s are self-warranted and his belief that the self-warrant principle is justified are both justifiably accepted.  Given his metaphysical realism and his view of justification, however, he must ascend to yet higher and higher levels.  While this ascent may continue indefinitely, he maintains a regress does not endanger the “lower” level beliefs and principles since all that is relevant is that these “lower” level beliefs and principles, in fact, be justified.  His appeal to the “reliability principle,” then, need not demonstrate that his acceptance of the “self-warrant principle” and the individual B’s, are justified for his view to be coherent—our ability to show these things is irrelevant when we are considering whether or not we have fulfilled the responsibility which the realistically-minded rationalists’ maxim specifies.

     Given this, however, it is difficult to understand why he ascends to the level of the “reliability principle.”  He could have stopped at the “first” level maintaining that the individual B’s are self-warranted and, in fact, justified.  He could have responded to any justificatory queries, or to any charges of arbitrariness or dogmatism, by insisting upon his metaphysical realism.  An expression of “blind” faith on the “third” level is no less fideistic than one on the “first” one, and a fideism on some level or other is unavoidable given the rejection of justificationalism.

     Alston and other level-conscious realistically-minded rationalists may feel that their (limited) ability to countenance and answer the “epistemic” questions may differentiate their orientation from the fideists’ orientations.  This is not the case however.  It is open to any fideist to respond to calls for justification by ascending to “higher” levels while, ultimately, retaining a fideistic view—many fideists, in fact, have offered justifications for their claims that their “first” level beliefs are justified in terms of their “second” or (“higher”) level beliefs while holding that on these levels one must have faith.13

     Unable to distinguish fideistic and rationalistic commitments or to determine which commitments, beliefs, methods, or theories fulfill this obligation, then level-conscious realistically-minded rationalists may only assert that one should accept those which do, in fact, fulfill it.  Asked which these are, or confronted with a challenge to their claim that the ones which they champion are such, they must confess both their inability to decide the issue and its irrelevance.  Of course, they must also assume their maxim, beliefs, and theories are such, but they must eschew justificationalism here, and that seems to leave them with nothing but a “blind” faith.  If this is the case, however, level-conscious realistically rationalism turns out to appear oxymoronic and such rationalists seem to be fideists disguised in rationalists’ clothing.

     It may seem as if this charge is unfairly leveled against the rationalist who follows Alston, but a quick examination of his argument in his The Reliability of Sense Perception seems to bear out the charge.14  Alston begins this work asserting that:

in arguing that putative experience of God can be a source of epistemic justification for certain kinds of beliefs about God, I found myself taking the position that it is impossible to give an effective noncircular demonstration of the reliability of any of our basic modes of belief formation.15

That is, that a belief-formation process is reliable—that it produces beliefs which are, in fact, justified—is something that we can not establish.  Nonetheless, Alston endeavors (by ascending to higher levels) to show that it is practically rational for us to believe that our sensory perceptions (SP) are reliable:

but then if I have shown, by my practical argument, that it is rational to engage in SP, I have thereby shown that it is rational to take SP to be reliable.  For since the acknowledgement of the rationality of the practice commits one to the rationality of supposing it to be reliable, to provide an adequate argument for the former will be to provide an adequate argument for the latter.  Hence our argument from practical rationality, though it does not show that SP is reliable, does show that it is rational to take it to be reliable.  No doubt, it would be more satisfying to produce a direct demonstration of the truth of the proposition that SP is reliable.  But since that is impossible, we should not sneer at a successful argument for the rationality of supposing SP to be reliable.16

Alston appends the following footnote to the above:

this is analogous to the “fideist” move in religion.  Pessimistic about the chances of directly establishing the truth of the existence of God, one seeks to show that it is rational for one to believe in God, as a postulate of pure practical reason, as a requirement for fullness of life, or whatever.  But only analogous to fideism: I don’t want to wear that label.17

As a level-conscious realistically-minded rationalist, Alston must accept that he can not establish that sense perception (or any other belief-formation process) is reliable (that it produces beliefs which are, in fact, justified).  He can, however, ascend a level and provide justifications for his belief that it is such.  Such arguments, of course, will appeal to yet higher-level principles which must themselves be, in fact, justified.  As a level-conscious realistically-minded rationalist, however, this causes Alston no concern.  All that he needs to show is that it is practically rational that we employ the reliable processes of sensory perception.  If the skeptic wishes to raise a criticism of this argument, or challenges the appeal to practical reason, the discussion begins anew—at a yet higher level, with a new question.

     Of course, in another work Alston is concerned to show that “putative experience of God can be a source of epistemic justification for certain kinds of beliefs about God….”18  Whatever sort of “first level” beliefs one is discussing, however, and whatever sort of belief-forming processes one subsequently discusses, ascent to ever higher levels can not establish reliability (or whether the beliefs are, in fact, justified).  Whether one adduces Alston’s appeal to practical reason to support beliefs formed via sense perception, or Pascal’s appeal to our “infinite concerns” to support the beliefs recommended in his Pensées,19 the ascent to higher and higher levels seems to be without much point.  Since the level-conscious realistically-minded rationalist recognizes that “…it looks as if the judgment that the practice is rational has no bearing on the likelihood that it will yield truths, in which case the argument for rationality will not advance our original aim of determining whether one or another practice is reliable,”20 it seems as if the ascent is largely without purpose.  Unlike the skeptical ascent on a ladder which is to be “kicked away,” this ascent seems to provide a justification for those who have rejected justificationalism.

     The level-conscious realistically-minded rationalists’ willingness to offer such ascent seems to distinguish them from the fideistic willingness to appeal to faith.  It seems as if one could avoid the ascent and the epistemic arguments, and simply adopt the attitude of the “man on the street” (or “ordinary believer”)—that the level-conscious realistically-minded rationalist could comfortably stay on the first level. Without offering any justifications whatsoever, they could adhere to the particular beliefs they champion (whether they are formed by sensory perception, religious experience, or whatever belief-formation process one can imagine).  The second (and higher) level arguments (the ascent) appears to be without purpose.  Indeed, the propensity of fideists to contend at some point one must be satisfied with a “blind faith” seems more up-front than an ascent to higher levels which yield exactly such a commitment.  Thus it does not seem that Alston’s “move” is simply “analogous” to the moves made by the traditional fideists—instead it seems to be exactly their move (though, as indicated above, some of the traditional fideists also ascend a level or two in their discussions).

     It seems to me that the fideistic element in Alston’s level-conscious realistically-minded rationalism is one which all reliabilists who adhere to metaphysical realism are likely to fall prey to, and I suspect that they, like Alston, would want to demur from this (that they would not want to “wear that label”).  I believe that it clearly applies, however, and it is irremovably affixed to their position.  I believe that they can not avoid the label because of their rejection of the justificatory responsibility which characterizes the traditional rationalists’ orientation—but that is another, and longer, story.21


1 Cf., “Level Confusions in Epistemology” in Midwest Studies in Philosophy v. 5 (1980), pp. 135-150.  The essay is reprinted in Alston’s Epistemic Justification: Essays in the Theory of Knowledge (Ithaca: Cornell U.P., 1989).   Back

2 Cf., his “Two Types of Foundationalism” in The Journal of Philosophy v.73 (1976), pp. 165-185. The essay is reprinted in Alston’s Epistemic Justification: Essays in the Theory of Knowledge, op. cit.   Back

3 Ibid., p 183.   Back

4 This problem is raised by Susan Haack (in “Fallibilism and Necessity,” Synthese v. 41 (1979), pp. 37-63.  She points out that the fallibilist must advance grounds for believing fallibilism to be true which are not grounds for skepticism and “...this calls for a comparison of the results of our cognitive methods with the true results....But...we can’t make this kind of comparison unless we have access to ‘the true results’, and we can’t have that unless we have some infallible methods” (p. 57).  A parallel argument of A.J. Ayer’s maintains that we could have no reason for believing we are fallible unless we were confident some of our beliefs had been falsified and, thus, we must know the truth and, hence, possess infallible cognitive methods.  Haack would avoid this line of argument, like Popper, by maintaining that the fallibilist need not insist upon infallible methods or results but requires only that some of our beliefs be “better warranted.”  Here, however, the reference to truth is still present and it is this reference which provides the problem for any realistically-minded fallibilist.   Back

5 Michael Dummett takes realism to be “...the belief that statements of the disputed class possess an objective truth-value, independently of our means of knowing it: they are true or false in virtue of a reality existing independently of us” (“Realism,” in his Truth and Other Enigmas [Cambridge: Harvard U.P., 1978, p.146]).   Back

6 With Tertullian, Kierkegaard rebels against reason.  According to him, being Christian entails subordinating one’s reason to the authority of revelation which yields truths which, from the rational point of view, are impossible paradoxes.  While his views may well not be (indeed, perhaps, were not even intended to be) consistent, it seems clear that he held that revelation yields a truth and, despite his emphasis upon choice and the primacy of the will, he does not seem to believe that other “ultimate commitments” would be appropriate.  Thus Maurice Mandlebaum (History, Man, and Reason [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U.P., 1971], p. 32) says “it was essential to his view that Christianity should be literally true in its claims, and, yet, that it should not be considered as reasonable in any sense of that term.”   Back

7 Montaigne’s skeptical arguments were meant to expose the unsoundness of all reasoning and, thus, show that faith must take primacy over reason.  Such faith, however, clearly leads to truth according to him.   Back

8 For Augustine, we “believe in order to understand.”  Rational inquiry reveals the necessary of faith—some fundamental principles must be accepted on faith.  He does not require that the principles be unjustified however.   Back

9 Cf., Alston, “Self-Warrant: A Neglected Form of Privileged Access,” American Philosophical Quarterly, v. 13 (1979), pp. 257-272, p. 272. The essay is reprinted in Alston’s Epistemic Justification: Essays in the Theory of Knowledge, op. cit.   Back

10 Ibid., p. 262.   Back

11 Ibid., p. 268.  Cf., his “Level-Confusions in Epistemology,” op. cit., p. 148.   Back

12 Alston's "Level-Confusions in Epistemology," op. cit., p. 140.   Back

13 Augustine, for example, maintains that a rational inquiry may (and, perhaps, must) precede a fideistic acceptance of some fundamental principles revealing the need to accept them on faith.  Pascal, similarly, believed reason was useful—up to a point.  And Kant assigns much importance to rational justification while at the same time maintaining that human reason “ burdened by questions which, as prescribed by the very nature of reason itself, it can not ignore, but which as transcending all its powers, it is also not able to answer” (Critique of Pure Reason, trans. N.K. Smith [Toronto: Macmillan, 1929, p. 7, B vii]).  Many other fideists, of course, would also countenance a good deal of justificatory effort while maintaining that we must ultimately accept certain valid principles on faith alone.  Since they would have us reject justificationalism in regard to these principles and yet, would maintain we ought to believe what is in fact justified, the main difference between their view and the realists’ would seem to be the particular sort of faith which each fideistically recommends.    Back

14 Cf., William Alston, The Reliability of Sense Perception (Ithaca: Cornell U.P., 1993).   Back

15 Ibid., p. ix.   Back

16 Ibid., pp. 132-133.   Back

17 Ibid.   Back

18 Ibid., p. ix.  Cf., Alston’s Perceiving God (Ithaca: Cornell U.P., 1991).   Back

19 Cf., Blaise Pascal, Pensées [1690, post], in Blaise Pascal: Pensées and Other Writings, trans. Honor Levi (N.Y.: Oxford U.P., 1995).   Back

20 Alston, The Reliability of Sense Perception, op. cit., p. 132.   Back

21 An earlier version of this argument was offered in my The Reasonableness of Reason: Explaining Rationality Naturalistically (Chicago: Open Court, 1995).   Back  

Revised on 11/08/2005

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