Basic empirical beliefs and its importances

A basic belief for most people is the idea that we believe in something which has not been corrupted by other beliefs to change the core belief we initially have about certain things. They are not inferred from other beliefs and is known better as Foundationalism. From this is the idea of a basic empirical belief, a belief that is learned by observing it using our empirical knowledge; sight, hearing, touch etc. To try and understand beliefs more clearly and to grasp what knowledge is without empirical beliefs, if it can happen, I will look at Foundationalism its counter argument Coherentism and the basic idea of empirical/sensory belief. Foundationalism considers that we need a core set of beliefs, beliefs that our other beliefs we have are built upon in order to make the original belief become more real.

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Most of us have a foundationalist belief structure and our basic beliefs can be justified by beliefs that link to it in order to make it more factual and the basic belief makes the beliefs which tie in with it justified. However, this doesn’t mean that they themselves are justified, just that the basic belief, if true, makes the beliefs that stem from it justified. Following from having a basic belief, The Regress argument/Trilemma puts across that a belief is justified by another belief which is justified by another, then another and so on. So a) It goes on forever, b) Ends with some of the beliefs justify themselves, c) Ends with some of the beliefs having no justification. Therefore, if it went on forever it would be a vicious circle and end up having no end or beginning. It is a ‘vicious regress’, which Lewis discusses further, if you believe in the chance of something occurring or being true is small, then you don’t really believe it because to have belief in something you need to be able to justify it, if nothing can be certain then how do we know anything? But the idea of regress can be reversed if something is certain and we believe in it, so some beliefs must be certain. In Agrippa’s Trilemma, the 2nd option relates to Coherentism, which is an alternative argument to Foundationalism.

Coherentism considers that if there could be now way to justify our empirical sense beliefs, and if the idea that beliefs can be justified by one another forever is ruled out then the beliefs can only be justified by their unique properties in relation to other beliefs and how well they fit together in order to produce a organised system of beliefs. Consistency is a requirement of coherence, but a set of beliefs do not need to have flaws to have no coherence, beliefs, which are perfectly consistent, may also have no coherence. As said in Agrippa’s Trilemma, beliefs justify themselves instead of going on forever, this is shown by the idea that if a belief was to be justified by another belief and so on, then empirical justification moves in a circular motion. But, Coherentism moves away from this idea and towards the idea of a linear motion and that the belief is in a line, with the order of epistemic priority at the beginning and epistemic justification at the other end of the line. The belief justifies itself then, as it does not need to have another belief to rely on it to make it justified.

Moving on from this, having empirical beliefs means to have knowledge of our beliefs by gaining it through our senses. Foundationalism believed that basic beliefs were infallible, but by looking at Infallible sensory beliefs, what we believe to be seeing might not be infallible after all and most of our beliefs make us sure of our sensory beliefs. So it seems that we cannot have beliefs without our senses. For example, the belief in a religion, a God, that England are the best at Rugby, all these beliefs cannot be justified unless we have our sense to prove so. Furthermore, we can’t have these beliefs to begin with unless we use our empirical knowledge to understand what we believe. If we had no sight then we could not read Holy Scriptures, which reveal religions, if we had no hearing then we could not hear classical music which you may believe to be the best music made by man and so forth. Our empirical knowledge is intertwined closely with our beliefs, and if we were unfortunate to not be able to use all our empirical senses and to have 1 of them taken away, this still hinders our chances of having a true belief in something and being able to justify it. However, a belief can make us more certain of our sensory beliefs e.g. I think I felt a spider run across my back. Later we discover it was a feather duster. Why can’t other beliefs lower how sure we are of our sensory beliefs? If we are to accept the foundation of sensory beliefs, how does this relate to the belief structure?

Following on from empirical beliefs is a priori knowledge. It is common to most that all the knowledge we hold comes from experience, experience we gain through using our senses. Our experience is not doubted and is gathered by using ‘raw material of our sensible impressions’, our empirical knowledge is formed by our interpretations of our own knowledge. A priori knowledge is very different from this, it does not come from experience, and it comes from innate knowledge we are born with. In example, ‘a man who undermined the foundations of his house, that he might have known a priori that it would fall, that is, that he need not have waited for the experience of its actual falling.’ A priori knowledge is totally separate from experience, its opposite being posteriori, knowledge through experience. With beliefs, we adapt what we know from posteriori and a priori knowledge to justify and understand what we know about our beliefs.

Before we are born are we are believed to have this previous knowledge, which Piaget talks of in relation to conscience and children. A child develops internal representations or mental and physical actions, some Schemata that are already present in a newborn, such as sucking, gripping and crying. Others develop as the child grows. The Schemata are built through 2 processes: 1. Assimilation- fitting newly acquired knowledge into what the child already knows. 2. Accommodation-as new experiences occur which do not fit into existing schemata, the child adapts them t fit, or creates new ones. This is similar to beliefs and knowledge, we can have a priori knowledge of a religion, like a blueprint in our mind of a God and we can build on our belief of this by using empirical knowledge to know more about it and by adapting what we already know and interpreting it with our senses.

Overall, arguments show that mainly, if we cannot have empirical beliefs then we would find it hard to now anything. Our senses play a huge part in creating thoughts of belief, and without them it is hard to understand what beliefs can be justified if we were to for example have no sight or hearing. We would not be able to believe in a religion, except for the idea that we have a priori knowledge of a God. However, the basic belief of this is not enough to justify it and requires other beliefs to justify it, so this makes it hard for us to know anything. Or for that matter, anything true. I believe that we cannot know anything other than what we are innately born with, but this knowledge alone is not enough to create beliefs or pure knowledge, which solidifies these beliefs. Our empirical senses are key to establishing what we believe and whether we can justify them further therefore without empirical beliefs we can know nothing sufficient.


The Structure of Empirical Knowledge- Lawrence Bonjour 1986. London, Harvard University Press, ch.5

Critique of Pure Reason, trans. – Immanuel Kant 1929. Norman Keep Smith, New York, St. Martin’s Press, 41-55

Piaget and the Foundations of Knowledge- Lynn S. Liben 1983. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Hillsdale, New Jersey, ch.6