A Solution to The Infinite Regress Problem

By R.N. Carmona

The problem, as commonly framed, is that the truth of P1 is substantiated by a P2, which is then substantiated by a P3. The thought is that this goes on forever. The Infinite Regress problem resulted in foundationalism, which was motivated by the pursuit of certainty. Ross Cameron frames the problem as follows:

An infinite regress is a series of appropriately related elements with a first member but no last member, where each element leads to or generates the next in some sense. An infinite regress argument is an argument that makes appeal to an infinite regress. Usually such arguments take the form of objections to a theory, with the fact that the theory implies an infinite regress being taken to be objectionable.

Cameron, Ross. “Infinite Regress Arguments”. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2018. Web.

The Infinite Regress Problem is therefore, not much of a problem unless a given interlocutor decides that it is. Such an interlocutor usually makes that decision due to prejudice, an unabashed bias for their own conclusion or perspective while in other cases, the individual disagrees with an alternative explanation so much that they go out of their way to express skepticism toward this explanation to an extent that they never applied to their own. In other words, someone who is skeptical of Correspondence Theory will go as far as questioning reality, e.g. Descartes’ Evil Demon, or questioning the very existence of the person they are debating, e.g., “how do you know you’re not a brain in a vat?” This is all while ignoring that if such an evil demon is distorting reality on a whim, they too are subject to its deception and that if the person they are debating is a brain in a vat, it is far likelier that they themselves are in the same predicament.

The issue with any Infinite Regress argument is that the radical skeptic has glossed over basics in philosophy. For the skeptic’s argument to work, the onus is on him to find a premise containing necessary and sufficient conditions in relation to the premise he is skeptical of. Put another way, if I say that Correspondence Theory says nothing other than the fact that the proposition “it is snowing” holds true if, in fact, it is snowing, the interlocutor is tasked with finding a premise on which the truth of the proposition “it is snowing” rests. The fact that it is snowing is a distinct reality from my proposition, especially because I can make that claim, for whatever reason, even when it is not the case that it is snowing. I could either be off my rocker or lying, but any proposition can be proposed even when what informs the proposition is not the case. Andrew Brennan puts it this way:

The standard theory makes use of the fact that in classical logic, the truth-function “p ⊃ q” (“If pq”) is false only when p is true and q is false. The relation between “p” and “q” in this case is often referred to as material implication. On this account of “if pq”, if the conditional “p ⊃ q” is true, and p holds, then q also holds; likewise if q fails to be true, then p must also fail of truth (if the conditional as a whole is to be true). The standard theory thus claims that when the conditional “p ⊃ q” is true the truth of the consequent, “q”, is necessary for the truth of the antecedent, “p”, and the truth of the antecedent is in turn sufficient for the truth of the consequent

Brennan, Andrew. “Necessary and Sufficient Conditions”. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2017. Web.

If Brennan is correct, then an Infinite Regress is not, in fact, an issue no matter how much a disingenuous interlocutor says it is. An Infinite Regress is nothing more than a rebranded Slippery Slope, the termination of which is decided by a premise containing either a viable truth maker or that corresponds to reality in a noncontroversial way. Furthermore, it would be a premise that has no conditional relationship to some other premise. This premise q would not require a premise r on which the necessity of its truth is grounded. It is simply one proposition that is established by some external reality or lines of evidence that make its truth more likelier than not. This is what is meant by propositions like “evolution is true.” This conclusion is supported by lines of scientific evidence strongly suggesting that the proposition is probable. Given the advent of fallibism, what epistemologists look for are propositions that are highly probably true. They are no longer in the business of certainty. So while any true proposition has a small, usually negligible, chance of being false, one could achieve a high degree of certainty in exactly those propositions that are highly likely to be true.

Recall that to terminate a Slippery Slope, it is necessary to show that a proposed consequence will not end up being the case if a given action is taken. Opponents of same-sex unions would often say things like, “what’s next!? people marrying their dogs!?” It was easily shown that their concerns were non sequitur and thus, in similar fashion, one could do away with an Infinite Regress argument by establishing that the interlocutor has failed to find a premise r on which the truth of q rests. The onus is heavy because he is tasked with finding a premise that is necessary and sufficient in relation to the truth of q. If he cannot do so, he has admitted that the regress terminates at q and accepts justification, however begrudgingly, for why this is the case.

In general, the issue at the heart of any Infinite Regress argument is the fact that people, especially non-philosophers, tend to be disingenuous. They will concoct some ridiculous standard for any point of view that disagrees with theirs while failing to scrutinize their own views in accordance with that standard. There is no Infinite Regress. In the end, what remains is disagreement, to some degree of strength, with the justification(s) underlying certain beliefs. If, for example, someone claims that they know we are all brains in vats because a being outside of our reality told them this, then it is within my right for me to inquire about this being. Moreover, it is within my right to question this person’s sanity or at the very least, their sobriety. If this revelation was received while this person was drunk or high on a hallucinogen, then it is far likelier that their account is false. The same applies if this person has been diagnosed with a mental illness that makes hallucinations a frequent occurrence for him.

Ultimately, the nature of dialogue, especially on social media, has revealed the basest human fault: the propensity to be disingenuous. Everyone who has a bias distorts facts, omits evidence to the contrary, employs radical skepticism, and sets up an Infinite Regress problem as the standard for the opposition to reach. With respect to the latter, it is a standard that their own views have not met, despite the disingenuous interlocutor’s assertions. The Infinite Regress Problem is not a problem, but rather an argument offered by someone bent on remaining obstinately unconvinced by a position or conclusion that rubs them the wrong way. These arguments are no different from Slippery Slope arguments and terminate at the point in where you locate a proposition that is not contingent on another. This issue no longer concerns epistemologists and should be of no concern to any student of philosophy.

4 comments

  1. Charles

    Quite interesting your distinction into ‘being a problem’ and ‘being an argument’. But, anyway, both concepts (i.e. ‘being a problem’ and ‘being an argument’) seem to have identity criteria which we have to meet in order to apply these concepts correctly.
    Here the regress happens with regard to the arguments of a concept, does it?

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    • R.N. Carmona

      I make no distinction. The infinite regress “problem” isn’t such until someone deploys it as an argument, usually to impose the idea that a god is necessary as the first cause or prime mover. Otherwise, no one considers it an issue. That’s the point I make throughout the post. Even children who continue to ask “why” are eventually satisfied with some answer they feel is satisfactory; or they just grow tired.

      There’s also the more crucial fact: no one demands this of their own point of view and the assertion that a god exists and terminates the regress does not create a good standard because I can, and will, continue to ask, what evidence do you have for this god? How do you address evidence against this god? How do you know it terminates the regress? What makes you think it’s the first cause or prime mover? How do you know it is eternal? The questions will go on and on, and over time the believer will have to admit that s/he knows absolutely nothing; everything s/he claims to know about a god boils down to faith. The interlocutor, therefore, has not met their own lofty standard.

      My proposal makes everything simpler: find me a premise that is necessary and sufficient with respect to the previous premise. If you cannot, then you must accept that my argument or view is sound. If you can, then you must admit of infinite regress in your (probably) favorite deductive arguments for God. What you imply is that every first premise of every argument for God rests on any unstated premise; well, for what it’s worth, the naturalist knows that these arguments are viciously circular because they start from the assumption that God exists and attempt to stipulate him into existence with deductive arguments that usually have at least one controversial premise. In any case, I digress.

      The solution I propose is simple and puts the burden on the disingenuous interlocutor to keep the regress going, especially since they are proposing a problem that they themselves have no viable solution on the assumption that there really is an infinite regress. If there is an infinite regress, there must always be a q that is necessary and sufficient with respect to r and a p with the same relation to q, an o with the same relation to p, and so on ad infinitum. There is always a satisfactory terminus, a point in where it is not necessary to go further. The disingenuous interlocutor asserts this about his own beliefs and arguments without ever meeting his own standards; it’s the same way, usually these same people, demand that I prove I’m not a brain in a vat—though they have never proven that they themselves are not in that predicament.

      I do not know you. Or at least I think I don’t. But if you feel the need to defend infinite regress because it’s an argument you deploy when choosing to be disingenuous toward people who don’t believe what you do, then you are wasting your time here. I will continue to demand that you meet your own standard; terminate the regress in your own beliefs and arguments before demanding that of anyone else, and no, God does not do the trick. You can posit, by faith, the existence of a god who terminates it for you. I can posit, by lines of evidence, the physical necessity of the universe that terminates regress on naturalism, i.e., how one event is physically contingent on a prior event all the way back to the Big Bang singularity; how the so-called effect is physically inhered in the cause. So even then, I am on much stabler ground.

      Ultimately, such an exercise is not necessary at all, especially where mundane claims are involved; I don’t think I need to usher in the physical necessity of the universe to say that I exist or that it’s cloudy out because if I don’t exist, you wouldn’t have messaged me and if it isn’t cloudy out, then it’s quite possible you are being deceived in much the same way I am, i.e., the Cartesian demon has us both fooled. Infinite regress and slippery slope are analogous and are thus terminated in like manner. G.E.M. Anscombe would have certainly applauded this solution because she knew that some facts are not reducible to other facts; brute facts exist. This makes for a thorough rejection of PSR, which I myself have never been partial to.

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  2. Charles

    Thanks for your prompt answer.
    At first, what counts to me is that we are communicating and having a exchange of views.
    And now to the subject, the Infinite Regress: One could say that we have a dissent. A dissent presupposes in some sense that there is a solution, otherwise people would just present their views and would not argue with each other about what is true. Basically, like in a situation of violence, one attack (in a dissens) gets responded by another one. So, we could say that Philosophy is something like the never ending argument. But how is this going on? We suppose a first premise which solves everything and at the same time we are climbing the inferential latter upwards? (seen from the perspective of an event in a dissent the initial statement (=event) works as necessary condition for the response)
    At B 644-B 647 Kant suggests another solution to the problem of god, i.e. the problem of a first premise. This solution could also be transferred to the notion of Pareto-Optimum: in Pareto-Optimum you just have a relative Optimum, namely an Optimum in relation to the present options whereas Kant suggests an Optimum or a first premise just as fixpoint for our premises. This Optimum is not there at all, it just serves as a reference point.

    You wrote that you are making no distinction.
    “The infinite regress “problem” isn’t such until someone deploys it as an argument.”
    But then, what do you mean by “it” in the phrase “[…] until someone deploys it as an argument.”?
    And what do you mean by “as” in “[…] as an argument.”?

    By the way, so far, I did not see anyone who carried out an Infinite Regress. I mean it is hard and possibly impossible to formulate that there is an Infinite Regress without presuppositions mathematical notion of Infinity.

    I am not a sophist but a philosopher. I mean this problem really makes a problem for me. I am not trying to be smart, but to handle the problem since it’s my problem as a philosopher. (I know nowadays everybody tries to be smart to get a good job. But this results in an instrumentalistic way of living – I do not want this! Possibly, this whole job-philosophy corrupts philosophy itself (here we are with Sokrates – the non-expert Expert (but possibly we are with Bruce Lee and his formless form)).)

    I read about you in your Blog. Iike Feminism for its giving us new ideas and ways to handle problems.

    (As I re-read my post, my first statement reminds me of Mr. Biden inauguration speech as new President for he stresses that disagreement does mean war and he stresses the term unity, not agreement. Really a good speech. (In some German media the term was wrongly translated as ‘agreement’.)
    Possibly, according to Kant, he is right in claiming that the crisis will have a good end if it is met as Americans. According to Kant, understanding ourselves as temporal beings makes us consequences; consequences of what? in the end, consequences of the unconditioned first premise (if we understand ourselves as…).)

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    • R.N. Carmona

      I think it is clear what I mean when I said infinite regress is not an issue until someone deploys the concept of an infinite regress as an argument, i.e., to argue against an opponent’s claim. So, what usually happens is that a Christian Theist will say “without God, there is no ultimate foundation and so, you have to address the infinite regress of your beliefs; you can never truly know anything!” Which of course, is patently false. I suggest, therefore, to terminate this pretense at infinite regress by getting the Theist to identify a premise that is necessary and sufficient in relation to the premise they take issue with, especially if it serves as the first premise of an argument.

      Consider if I say “All men are mortal.” What I would then demand of the Theist using an infinite regress argument is for him to identify an unstated premise on which “All men are mortal rests.” Clearly, given the evident nature of the premise, they are being disingenuous and to add that I cannot know this premise because I do not believe in God is ludicrous. The syllogism “All men are mortal; Socrates is a man; therefore, Socrates is mortal” is self-contained, sound, and an infinite regress does not apply to it unless a disingenuous, usually Christian, interlocutor wants to use the pretense of dissent as means to frustrate their opponent. I am also a philosopher, but given that I have the bents of a scientist as well, I pride myself in solving problems. The infinite regress is not a problem; it is akin to slippery slope and can be terminated in a satisfactory manner if both parties are being honest and charitable. Demanding that *I* find a premise on which “All men are mortal” is contingent on, instead of doing the work yourself, especially if you are the one using infinite regress to challenge the fact that I do know things, is an attempt not to do philosophy but to engage in dishonest tactics intended to upset your opponent. It’s the same as asking “how do you know that you’re not a brain in a vat?”

      The point being that in that case and in the case of infinite regress, as you recognize in your own comment, these are standards that my opponent himself has not met. If you have not met the standard, then it must be asked, why are you demanding that I meet a standard you yourself cannot reach? Like you said, if you were attempting to solve infinite regress, by really identifying a premise o on which p relies, an n on which o relies, an m on which n relies, an l on which m relies, a k on which l relies, and so on ad infinitum, you would literally have no time to demand that someone else meet the standard; you would be too busy counting to infinity.

      Given that it is not a standard any finite person can reach, even if we did agree that it is a genuine problem, it is futile to use it against an opponent in the way Christian Theists tend to do. The argument is not designed for philosophical purposes, but rather, for apologetic purposes as it is a way for the Theist to pretend the regress is solved by an eternal entity that is itself far more mysterious than any of our ordinary propositions like “All men are mortal.” We reach a point at which we should dig no further. This makes epistemology possible to do, for one. It also makes it possible for us to truly know things. If you say, “I know where the nearest Walmart is,” I will not demand that you prove that you can a) trust your cognitive faculties b) that you are not being fooled by an evil demon c) that you are not dreaming d) appeal to your possible ignorance, e.g. perhaps there is a Walmart that is even closer, but you don’t know about it or e) introduce the concept of an infinite regress and demand that you prove a series of unrelated things to ground the very mundane claim that you know where the nearest Walmart is. Now, imagine for some time that I did approach you in that way. What would you think my aim is? How would you not see me as someone who is obviously trying to get under your skin?

      In any case, anything that involves infinity outside of mathematics should not be our concern at all. If infinite regress were a genuine problem, we would have no way of meeting the standard and sowing together the entire infinite series of propositions that each ground one or the other; that is ignoring counterfactuals and the like, so we would have branches from every proposition. A brief example is in order. Say I owe my friend money. Like an innocent child, you ask “why?” I respond that I needed groceries. You then ask “why?” I respond with my family ran through the food we had. You could have asked, “why don’t you have money for groceries? what do you do for work? why are you so irresponsible that you waited till the fridge was virtually empty before you borrowed money to buy food?” So the “why” I borrowed money from my friend can actually go in so many directions because your questions at least suggest that there are other reasons. Yes, I needed groceries, but also yes, I am irresponsible and yes, I should think about getting a better job. There are always multiple justifications for believing a claim to be true or for why one thing and not another occurs. So, in truth, there would potentially be many infinite regresses. At this point, it is no longer philosophy, but striving for insanity. Philosophy has to get used to solving problems and stop leaving the door open on questions that can be answered, especially given insight from other fields like science, e.g., consciousness, time, God, etc. The fact we still talk about Gettier problems is ridiculous to me, for instance, but I digress.

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