• Uber
    147
    I wanted to solicit your thoughts and opinions on how, or even if, Agrippa's Trilemma has any relevance on major problems in philosophy. Agrippa's Trilemma is the proposition that the attempt to justify any philosophical belief can only end in one of three ways:

    1) A circular argument

    2) An infinite chain of explanation

    3) A foundational assumption that can no longer be questioned

    An implicit point behind the Trilemma is that all of these ends are rather terrible, in the sense that they don't offer any satisfying finality. I am neither defending nor rejecting the Trilemma here, but I do want to know if you think it applies in any way to the philosophical issues below. You may also bring up other problems that you think apply.

    1) A common theistic argument against naturalism is that any attempt to provide an ultimate material explanation of reality will lead to an infinite regression. Once you come up with some theory that explains the fundamental properties of nature, let's say String Theory, then you are still left to explain the fundamental properties of that theory (ie. where do the strings come from?) Once you explain that theory in terms of a new theory, you need another theory to explain the last theory, and so on and so forth. My question to you all is: could the same thing apply for ultimate theistic explanations of reality? For example, why is God omnipotent? What is the source of God's omnipotence? Theists typically claim that God is all-powerful because it's God, a bit like saying that ships float on water because they're ships or cats have four legs because they're cats. Aren't all theistic attempts to explain the nature of reality trapped in the Trilemma as well?

    2) To what extent, if at all, is the Trilemma a problem of how language relates to philosophy? If we only have a limited number of concepts for explanations and definitions, are we bound to hit contradictions and circular arguments? For example, if I gave you three words A, B, and C and said define them in terms of each other, then A is B, B is C, C is A. And that just reduces to C is C.

    3) To what extent can empirical reality overcome the issues associated with the Trilemma? We may never come up with an ultimate justification for gravity, for example, but we know that gravitational interactions exist and we can use that incomplete understanding for different purposes (ie. sending satellites into orbit or designing roller coasters). Is empiricism of some kind a way out of the Trilemma?
  • Mariner
    251
    Is empiricism of some kind a way out of the Trilemma?Uber

    It just shifts the locus of the ultimate ground (even apart from any criticisms of it).

    An implicit point behind the Trilemma is that all of these ends are rather terrible, in the sense that they don't offer any satisfying finality.Uber

    How is (3) not a case of a "satisfying finality"? What would be a satisfying finality, can you give an example?
  • Uber
    147
    I myself don't have a sense of that finality, no. I suppose if I did I would not have bothered asking about the Trilemma.

    Having a foundational assumption that can no longer be questioned seems like just giving up. I suppose giving up is one way out of the whole thing.
  • tim wood
    900
    Interesting, but ultimately of no substance. Circular arguments are resolved in hermeneutical understanding; that is, the circle becomes a spiral, in which at each go-'round, something is different.

    Infinite chains are truncated at the level of appropriate meaning.

    Foundational assumptions are simply those assumptions, called presuppositions, that make thinking possible in the first place. If there's anything to be done with them, it would be to identify them as those that are held by the people doing the thinking. It's roughly accurate to call them axioms.

    1) Theistic arguments are rarely what they seem. In Christianity, for example, no one asks if God exists, or what he is, or how. All this is a matter of belief and faith. God is the absolute presupposition - axiom, if you will - of the Christian faith. Atheism and agnosticism, thus, are not attacks on Christianity. Rather they're attacks on people who, in maintaining certain aspects of faith as fact, are in fact espousing a personal system that is simply a mistake, in terms of Christianity.

    2) The question not asked is, "What are you looking for, exactly?" Without some rigor in approach at the outset in establishing the goal, the enterprise will never get to where it's going, but may well get caught in language. An excellent source of examples is ready-to-hand: many of the discussions here on TPF fizzle off into nothing because, essentially, they're without discipline.

    3) Empirical reality as ultimate reality was buried a long time ago. I'm thinking Hume, Berkeley, Kant, but I'm sure that's only a partial list. Language empowers the naive thinker to ask "why?" or "how?" ad infinitum. Children do it, but it's fair to suppose that a child isn't pursuing a philosopher's or a scientist's goals. In an adult, it's a mug's game, unless some end point is clearly in mind.

    The three horns, then, are apparent but not real. No need to get caught on them.
  • Mariner
    251
    Having a foundational assumption that can no longer be questioned seems like just giving up. I suppose giving up is one way out of the whole thing.Uber

    When there are no further questions to be answered, isn't this finality?

    And what would be the alternative?
  • Cavacava
    2.4k


    Infinite chains are truncated at the level of appropriate meaning.

    If so then truncation is perhaps "good enough for government work" or some lame epistemology :smile: , but not for any metaphysics because there is no stopping the question 'why?', which is why the principle of sufficient reason is so problematic.
  • Uber
    147
    Settling on a foundational assumption, with no further justification, is very arbitrary. That's the sense in which it's unsatisfying, or 'not final.'

    I don't know what the alternatives would be. I was asking the forum that very thing.
  • Uber
    147
    I don't actually understand how anything you've written in this post helps us move beyond the Trilemma. Your attitude here boils down to recognizing that the Trilemma is real, but ignoring its implications because...'appropriate meaning'...'something is different'...and other stuff that sounds nice and means nothing.
  • Mariner
    251


    The foundation (or ground) is not a given. It must be discovered. But once it is discovered, it is final (if it is indeed the ground of the issue).

    The work of acquiring knowledge proceeds from the better known to the less well-known. What the Trilemma (and you) are criticizing is the upending of this process, by arbitrarily setting on a purported ground before the investigation gets going, but (from the OP) "the attempt to justify any philosophical belief can only end in three ways", i.e., we are discussing the end of an investigation, rather than assumptions prior to the investigation.
  • Uber
    147
    But you can always question the discovery process behind the foundation. Why this or that decision? The foundation then needs to be reconsidered all over again. So again, it's arbitrary.

    Do you accept that the Trilemma is meaningful in any way? And if so in what ways?
  • Uber
    147
    There are two seaparate but related questions here.

    1) Is the Trilemma meaningful or correct?

    2) If it is meaningful or correct, then is that bad , good, neutral, or something else for philosophical reasoning?
  • Moliere
    1.3k
    It seems to me that there is a fourth option available while discussing bootstrap problems: agreement.

    We can disagree with any assertion. But do we? I'd say usually not -- usually there is something we can find that we agree upon.

    Insofar that there is some agreement between participants in a philosophical dialogue then there is a place to begin from.
  • Mariner
    251
    But you can always question the discovery process behind the foundation. Why this or that decision? The foundation then needs to be reconsidered all over again. So again, it's arbitrary.Uber

    The "you can" in this sequence is about capability, not about reasonableness. Sure, you can question anything, but should you? If we ignore this aspect, this becomes a discussion about skepticism rather than about epistemology per se.

    Regarding the two separate questions, here is my input.

    1) The Trilemma is quite correct, but inconsequential.
    2) It is a good demarcation of epistemological possibilities; keeping it in mind is sensible, because it helps us to classify any given explanation under one of the three headings.

    What should be added to it is a moral (normative) precept: we should strive to reach final positions (i.e. to reach a state of knowledge in which there are no further unanswered relevant questions). We ought to be wary (i.e., not-satisfied) with any explanation that derails into circularity or infinite regress, as a matter of practical hermeneutics.

    Note that this is not a precept that rules out the possibility that in any given investigation, circularity or infinite regress is the correct ending point. Indeed, there are some cases in which this happens. But we should look at these cases with suspicion, keeping in mind that a preferrable solution always involves a definitive end point.
  • Uber
    147
    Great answer. And I think it closely approximates my thinking on the issue as well: the Trilemma may have some validity, but we can still reach important practical and philosophical conclusions about the state of the world.
  • Ying
    175
    I wanted to solicit your thoughts and opinions on how, or even if, Agrippa's Trilemma has any relevance on major problems in philosophy. Agrippa's Trilemma is the proposition that the attempt to justify any philosophical belief can only end in one of three ways:

    1) A circular argument

    2) An infinite chain of explanation

    3) A foundational assumption that can no longer be questioned

    An implicit point behind the Trilemma is that all of these ends are rather terrible, in the sense that they don't offer any satisfying finality. I am neither defending nor rejecting the Trilemma here, but I do want to know if you think it applies in any way to the philosophical issues below. You may also bring up other problems that you think apply.
    Uber

    Yeah. Sextus Empiricus mentions those when he's talking about the five modes of suspension. Let's not forget in what context those ideas are most relevant. As such, their actual goal is suspension of judgement on non-evident matters, leading to ataraxia or unperturbedness. Most people don't bother with that and just get on with it since axiomatic certainty (or whatever) isn't required for successful communication.
  • apokrisis
    4.1k
    Is empiricism of some kind a way out of the Trilemma?Uber

    Infinite chains are truncated at the level of appropriate meaning.tim wood

    I'd say this is key. Eventually we lack reason to continue to doubt because our purposes seem satisfied. In pragmatic fashion, any further differences or uncertainties don't make a difference to the beliefs upon which we are willing to act.

    So philosophical reasoning is designed to be as open-ended a tool as possible. Part of the pragmatic equation is that it is useful to be able to keep on asking questions without limit. But then also the open endedness must be matched by a mechanism for achieving closure. And maybe science does a better job of expressing that formally as part of the total package.

    Empiricism is a mechanism for limiting doubt and securing belief. It assumes that if questions serve a purpose, then it has to be a purpose capable of being satisfied - at least to the degree necessary for the creation of states of belief that we would be willing enough to act upon.

    So the trilemma is like this pragmatic relation opened up to reveal its three essential elements.

    Yes, questioning or doubt is open-ended and extends to infinity. That's healthy. It shows that bit of the apparatus is in good working order.

    But then also foundationalism must apply. We need to be willing to risk asserting some starting belief. We need axioms that we aren't currently doubting. We also need a closure at the other end of the chain of reasoning thus created in the form of a principle of indifference. We need to know when a purpose is being sufficiently fulfilled and any errors of prediction, or degree of surprise, is simply the kind of fine-grain difference that makes no overall difference for us.

    The overall deal is thus circular. Or rather, hierarchical. Knowledge can grow endlessly in principle. The ability to hypothesise and doubt is open by design, so the system can always expand its borders. But knowledge is then anchored by its two bounds - the limits or "event horizons" of purpose and indifference.

    The two are reciprocal. That which is irrelevant to a purpose is matchingly a matter of indifference. Globally, our sphere of meaningful knowledge is defined by our largest purposes - the reasons we would have to act as if we believed. And locally, our grain of meaningful doubt becomes the degree to which surprises or exceptions could make a reasonable difference to what we would have done.

    The system - empirical rationalism - is thus both open and closed. And so it is dynamical or adaptive - capable of settling on its own self-organising balances.
  • Wayfarer
    6.3k
    My question to you all is: could the same thing apply for ultimate theistic explanations of reality?Uber

    One of the common atheist criticisms of religious philosophy is the question: if God made everything, then what made God? (Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett both regard this as a slam-dunk.)

    What this has lost sight of, is the original conception of what kind of being is intended by term in the theistic traditions (not that this is simple, because the traditions themselves are not uniform in their understanding, and also because of the complex interplay of symbolism, philosophical reasoning and so-called 'revealed truth'. But some generalisations can be drawn regardless.)

    An analogy might be given as follows: Everyone can see that 'light illuminates'. But what illuminates light?

    The answer to that question, is that it is the nature of light to illuminate. Light is simply 'what illuminates' - so the question as to why it does that, or where it derives this ability, are pointless. In this case, the fact that 'light illuminates' is the terminus of explanation.

    In the case of theistic explanations of reality - a good deal of the philosophical theology of Christianity was ultimately derived from (neo)Platonism. In those philosophies (which are considerably less anthropomorphic than their Christianised descendants) 'the One' is the source of being, in a manner analogous to that of light being the source of illumination; that the nature of the One is such that it simply emanates the Universe out of the super-abundance of divine creativity.

    So the answer to 'who made God' forgets that the original conception of Deity being precisely 'the uncreated' or 'the unmade'. So the question 'who made god?' presumes an anthropological conception of deity. It more or less projects 'God' as a super-person, an anthropomorphic super-engineer, and then ridicules it on the basis of the obvious fact that no such being could exist. But, as Terry Eagleton said in his review of The God Delusion:

    The world was not the consequence of an inexorable chain of cause and effect. Like a Modernist work of art, there is no necessity about it at all, and God might well have come to regret his handiwork some aeons ago. The Creation is the original acte gratuit. God is an artist who did it for the sheer love or hell of it, not a scientist at work on a magnificently rational design that will impress his research grant body no end.

    Having a foundational assumption that can no longer be questioned seems like just giving up. I suppose giving up is one way out of the whole thing.Uber

    People often say, on Internet forums, that the belief that 'God created the Universe' is the end of enquiry, as if that by believing that 'God did it', then all further enquiry is put aside. But is it? Does it mean dropping out of science, closing down the LHC? Becoming fundamentalist? I don't think it follows at all. If I were to believe that it's true (which I admit, I am inclined to) then surely that opens up the entire question of 'how can that be so? What does that mean?' If it's true, it's true in a way that is certainly beyond the grasp of either religious anthropomorphism or Dawkins type of scientific materialism, or so it would seem to me. Actually working out what it means - what is the terminus of explanation, for the question 'why does anything exist?' - used to be the aim of philosophy, and indeed science. (But somewhere along the way......)
  • PossibleAaran
    155
    Is empiricism of some kind a way out of the Trilemma?Uber

    I take this to mean "are perceptual experiences reasons for beliefs?". I think the answer is "yes" and that such reasons are neither circular, infinitely regressive or unjustified assumptions. When a piece of paper is in front of my face and my eyes are open, I have a particular perceptual experience and in that experience the paper itself is immediately before my consciousness. This relation between myself and the paper is such that, if I were to ask myself "why believe that there is a piece of paper in front of me?", the answer is right there. What is it that I believe in such a situation? I believe that "there is one of those there" where the italicized phrase refers to the immediate object of my awareness. Such a belief entails the existence of its object, and so there simply is no further question about why I think the belief is true. The very fact that I have the belief entails that it is true.

    This is the way in which beliefs about the world around us may escape Agrippa's Trilemma. It is a difficult question, however, whether much more than that can be salvaged.
  • MetaphysicsNow
    315
    I'm surprised nobody has mentioned Hegel yet on this thread. I'm no expert, but he did introduce an evolutionary conception of existence, so if reality is always evolving, so is our philosophy, and the evolution of our philosophy feeds back into the evolution of existence, so it would should be no surprise that philosophical explanations reach no final end. Maybe that's a bit of a cardboard cutout of Hegel, but it perhaps offers a different way of dealing with the trilemma.
  • Mariner
    251
    Maybe that's a bit of a cardboard cutout of Hegel, but it perhaps offers a different way of dealing with the trilemma.MetaphysicsNow

    And this different way, what would it be? Circular, infinite regression, or a definitive conclusion?

    ;)
  • MetaphysicsNow
    315
    Infinite, but ever decreasing, circularity perhaps :wink:
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