Meta-epistemic skepticism, Intuitionism and a quietist approach
“Why trust that you can reason? What reasons do you have to think you can use logic? Why believe that you are capable of accurately determining some set of inferential relationships between some pieces of knowledge and derive a conclusion that follows from those premises?”
These are common iterations of an age old question about the justification for our belief that we can reason at all. Most likely these questions will be asked as some sort of a persuasion tactic by a theist, largely theists of the presuppositional school of apologetics, to garner some incapacitation of the ability of a non-God worldview to give an account for logic or reason, or to give an account of our ability to use logic or reason. This is a small but vital component of an argument called a transcendental argument for God. The overarching idea is to posit that some transcendental being is necessary in order for humans to correctly use sound reasoning, logic, inferences, etc. in order to form knowledge. This transcendental being is allegedly necessary for transcendental categories (theoretical classifications like knowledge, logic, or morality) to exist and be known by people. The argument traces its origins to Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher from the late 1700's.
While this question is only a small part of the transcendental argument, it is often one that very few know how to correctly respond to and a correct response here is critical to the failure of the transcendental argument. The goal of this article is to outline an approach to answering the question in a unique way, by pointing out this is a case of broken question, not broken answers. From this it follows that the theist themselves not only lack a coherent answer to the question but fail to realize it’s an epistemic trap they have sprung on themselves and leads to contradiction and worldview collapse if they commit to the idea that God is the reason why we can reason.
Portrait of Immanuel Kant by Gottlieb Becker, 1768 When analyzing the qualities of the question, what sort of answers could potentially respond at all to it? The question is to explain why it is the case that you have some set of reasons to believe you can correctly infer a conclusion from some set of other beliefs. The first half of the question (the “why”) presumably asks for reasons or an explanation, and the second half (believe you can reason) is requesting you to believe you are capable of explanations at all. The first half demands you perform by using the very thing in question in the second half of the question. This means that any answer you can put forward will inevitably be circular. Whether the answer is God, Satan, our own hubris, evolution, magical pixies and fairies, or any other happenings of the world, the result is the same. Example:
For instance, S believes the reason S can trust her ability to use logic is because God reveals to S the ability to reason. An argument for this might go like so: P1) If God exists then God reveals logic to S such that S can correctly reason. P2) If God reveals logic to S such that S can correctly reason then S can trust that S can use reason
P3) God exists
C) S can trust that S can use reason
The above argument fails to answer the question. The “why” part of the question asks for an explanation but the answer ends up assuming S can use reason by using reason in the form of an argument. This is circular. The reason circularity is a problematic or fallacious is because the contention is that circularity is not informative and thereby not explanatory. If the contention is whether or not S has the ability to reason and any reason is given as a reason to be able to reason, any reason given will be inevitably circular. This leads to the contradiction that the theist commits themselves to, that our ability to reason is in virtue of or explained by revelation but then the answer is not explanatory. So we have the contradiction that is the conjoined position that our ability to use reason is God as the explanation but the reason provided is not an explanation at all. So it is both explained and not explained.
The theist may contend that some circles are not objectionable, and while there are some sorts of circularity that some philosophers, particularly of the Coherentist philosophers, tend to accept such as paradigm level circularity, the above typology is not one of them. Theists will often contend that this is a paradigm level circularity which is considered a virtuous circle but this is in fact a case of what John Greco at Saint Louis University calls Theoretical Circularity which is a type of vicious circularity. Dr. Greco in his paper Epistemic Circularity: Vicious virtuous and benign describes theoretical circularity like so: “[Theoretical Circularity] occurs when one’s theory of justification, or some other epistemically normative property, involves reference to that property itself. The problem with this sort of explanation is not that it is ill suited to get at truth, but that it is ill suited to inform. An adequate epistemology ought to be informative about how justification and knowledge arise in the first place.”
Doctor John Greco: Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown University
So if the answer cannot be God and any answer to the question fails to answer the question, how do we answer such a question? My proposal is to point out that the question itself is the flaw, not the answers. The idea is that some kinds of meta-epistemic justifications are nonsensical, so deeply problematic even that I believe we are mistaken to think there even can be such a justification and the theist is on a fools errand. This does not entail we are unjustified in using such reasoning only that such reasons cannot in principle be in virtue of some other facet of our epistemology or world. This leads to a skeptical position I call Meta-epistemic quietism. Quietism is usually advanced as a position about not theorizing at a meta level about some topic but here I mean it in a deeper way. Not just that I think we are mistaken to theorize about such meta questions but that we are mistaken to think there is a meta level at all to such fields. The motivation for taking such a view is in virtue of a commitment to any set of justifications in order to qualify as a justification at all it would need to be explanatory and due to the nature of some meta-epistemic questions it cannot be the case that such an explanatory justification can exist. It follows from this that the meta level in question doesn’t actually exist or if it does it is not a part of our epistemology at all.
I would hold the view that if the questions involved for such a meta-justification entail by their nature a circular response then we ought simply reject the question as meaningful or even interesting as a question. If in answering a question inevitably I have failed to answer a question then the question isn’t really a question at all even if semantically it seems that way because the question doesn’t ask for the thing it’s asking for at all. This is my version of meta-epistemic skepticism and the question “Why believe you can reason” is among such questions that semantically seem like questions but the contents don’t actually have meaning.
As I have written in previous posts, I am an intuitionist, and a phenomenal conservativist, so I am of the vein of thought that some types of knowledge are not standing atop some other piece of information but that we are having a non-inferential apprehension of some facts and absent a defeater for those apprehensions I am prima facie justified in believing those intuitions. This is to say that the reasons we believe we can reason cannot in principle be in virtue of some other fact like God’s revelation because this will inevitably be circular. The way to solve the circularity is to deny inferential methodology as a participant in answering the question. Essentially we can reason but the answer to the question (if indeed there is one) is itself non-inferential. While we are justified in believing we can reason it’s not in virtue of some inference and so it is my conclusion that the reason we can reason is that reason is the framework of any epistemic system and it only makes sense to ask for reasons internal to such a structure or system but not to ask those questions about the system itself because those questions will in fact not be meaningful. Our ability to reason is itself a kind of intuition and subsequently it is a mistake to think we even require such justifications at least of an inferential sort.
A quick and somewhat silly analogy to sum up this mistake I have been outlining thus far. An electrician and carpenter are building a house for an astronomer and the electrician says to the carpenter “What does this house sit atop, what grounds it?” The carpenter says “the construction team says it sits on a foundation.” The electrician goes to the construction team and asks “What does the foundation sit atop, what grounds it?” The construction team says “It sits atop the ground of course.” The electrician says “and what does the ground sit atop, what is the ground grounded by” and the astronomer rolls his eyes and says “not another flat earther.” Thanks for reading.