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 p, q”) 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 p, q”, 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 consequentBrennan, 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.