Universal Sanction and belief in the reality of the past

Some philosophers suggest that a criteria for properly basic beliefs is required of those who posit proper basicality of beliefs. The criteria which is widely being either adopted or at least talked about is the criteria of universal sanction. In the words of Tyler Wunder:

Well, there’s one thing, that I harp on about quite a bit, is something called, ‘universal sanction.’ I have to give credit to James Sennett. He came up with this. What it is is it is a criterion of proper basicality which attempts to meet the burden of proof, which, back when Plantinga was a methodist, had issued against the evidentialist. The nice things about the universal sanction criterion of proper basicality is that it covers the usual sorts of counterexamples that Plantinga raised against classical foundationalism. It seems to rule out theism and to my eye, it looks like a very promising criterion, at least for people who are looking for such things.

Basically, the gist of universal sanction, well, to start off, I have to stipulate that beliefs can be somewhat meaningfully divided up into categories or kinds and in the context of the present discussion, this is not a terribly controversial assumption.

We’ve already been talking about, ‘self-evident beliefs,’ versus ‘incorrigible beliefs,’ versus ‘perceptual and other minds and memory beliefs,’ and theistic beliefs. So this is not a controversial assumption, but universal sanction works with this idea of kinds of beliefs. According to this criterion, a belief kind is universally sanctioned if a thorough-going, sincere skepticism towards those kinds of beliefs, as an entirety, is pragmatically inconceivable. To give you an example, consider memorial beliefs.

– See more at: http://commonsenseatheism.com/?p=10551#sthash.bTlRzpZU.dpuf

First we should say that Christian Theism may be based upon testimony in as many as two ways: either by the testimony of the Church (communal verification) or by the testimony of the Holy Spirit speaking directly to us. Acceptance of testimony in the absence of a defeater seems to be universally sanctioned in the above sense, and so, therefore, is (or can be) Christian Theism. I think Christian theists may want to say more than that (maybe a non-sectarian general Theism is also properly basic given other considerations like a sensus divinitatus, an intuition of the PSR, the objectivity of necessary universals extended in the mind, the objectivity of teleological causes, etc.), but at very least their belief can be characterized, on their own account, as based on testimony. On another note, it may be that this construal of universal sanction lets things like causal relations in the door, along with other things like the objectivity of purpose, both of which may also be argued to entail the existence of God. Even if Hume is a skeptic about causal relations, he lives as though causal relations obtain, and even if many atheists deny the objectivity of meaning they act practically as though purpose were objective (or, as Kant would say, their reflective power of judgment binds them to the objectivity of purposes). Moreover, belief in things like life after death may be universally sanctioned insofar as those who disbelieve in it must contract a kind of cognitive dissonance: if they were ready to swallow the overwhelming nihilism of it all they wouldn’t be able to go about their day.

Second, it just isn’t true that this construal of universal sanction does work for all the usual sorts of counter-examples Plantinga raises against classical foundationalism. The idea of universal sanction does have other problems perhaps (to see what problems of it’s own it may have, I highly recommend taking a look at the critique offered here, and the response here), but I’ll leave those other problems aside. I will focus on a very different criticism – my claim will be that universal sanction construed as Sennett construes it will not allow us to call certain beliefs properly basic which we all want to call properly basic. Take the belief in the reality of the past – is that belief universally sanctioned? Why couldn’t somebody who believes at every moment at which they may be called upon to state their beliefs that the world has just been created at this very moment with the appearance of age simply get by with the belief that the majority of their memory-beliefs are (if not strictly ‘veridical’ at least empirically adequate for negotiating the here-and-now)? All they need, it seems, is to believe that the majority of their memory-beliefs carry entailments which are correct about the present world (empirically adequate) even if they are ‘about’ the past and the past isn’t in any way real. So, belief in the reality of the past is not universally sanctioned. To make matters worse, consider that there are such people: presentists believe that only that which presently exists, exists (let’s talk for the moment only about the typical A-theoretic presentism espoused by presentists, and ignore possible B-theoretic accounts of presentism). The presentist believes that the past is in no way real, and yet the presentist also believes that the majority of her memory-beliefs give her accurate information about the present.

So, universal sanction may be a bad stand-alone criteria for proper basicality. It can’t purchase the reality of the past (probably it can’t even purchase the reality of the external world or the reality of other minds, since there are idealists and solipsists about), and it also can’t purchase other things like the reality of the first person perspective, the law of excluded middle (mathematical intuitionism), and many other things besides. We need a better, fuller criteria, it seems to me.

Note: I owe my thanks to a few philosophically provocative friends on Skype for nearly this whole train of thought.


About tylerjourneaux

I am an aspiring Catholic theologian and philosopher, and I have a keen interest in apologetics. I am creating this blog both in order to practice and improve my writing and memory retention as I publish my thoughts, and in order to give evidence of my ability to understand and communicate thoughts on topics pertinent to Theology, Philosophy, philosophical theology, Catholic (Christian) Apologetics, philosophy of religion and textual criticism.
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