Being Without Foundations: Project Summary

Reality seems to come in layers or levels, some of which are more fundamental than others. It has long been and still is widely taken for granted that the hierarchy of layers or levels is bounded from below – that there is a fundamental level. This prompts the question what the nature of the fundamental level is – indeed, answering that question is then naturally viewed as the ultimate goal of inquiry. Our project questions the assumption, and explores alternatives to it.

The idea that reality has ultimate foundations is shared among world-views that otherwise differ radically. Theism has been the dominant metaphysical world view for most of the history of Western thought. Whatever else they claim, versions of this view hold that there is a being which is the ground of everything else. Materialism is a rival world view, which has enjoyed great popularity within philosophy in recent decades. Its most influential contemporary version holds that a great number of microphysical facts – facts about field values at spacetime points, for example – are themselves ungrounded, and are, jointly, the ground of everything else.

Sometimes, the view that reality has ultimate foundations is adopted because alternatives seem hard to imagine, or downright paradoxical. Arguably, however, modern mathematics has shown such concerns to be misplaced. There is nothing in principle wrong with dependency chains that do not bottom out: for example, sets which contain sets, which in turn contain sets, which themselves contain sets, and so on ad infinitum. These lessons of modern mathematics seem to have been insufficiently appreciated by other disciplines.

One of the guiding hypotheses of the present project is that the foundationalist orthodoxy is due to an assumed connection between foundation and explanation, as well as to a certain conception of the latter. Explanation in terms of unexplained ultimate foundations certainly serves as a paradigm for what a good explanation is. This paradigm is also influential in scientific disciplines that aim to explain specific phenomena, rather than reality as a whole. In mathematical logic and formal semantics, meaning is to be explained in a way that is compositional: the meaning of a complex expression is derived from the meanings of its ultimate parts, which do not themselves have any comparable explanation. In physics, macroscopic phenomena are explained in terms of elementary particles and their interaction. In theology, God is assigned the role of anchoring elements of reality (being, meaningfulness, norms) that are supposed to be unable to ‘stand alone’. In philosophy, theories are evaluated for their explanatory potential in terms of the primitives they postulate, where such primitives are taken to resist definition or analysis in more fundamental terms.

On reflection, however, these assumptions all appear questionable. For example, it is now generally considered metaphysically possible that space does not contain points, but is gunky, i.e. every part of it contains smaller parts. The view is also taken seriously in the philosophy of physics. Gunky space complicates our theories and, superficially at least, gives rise to paradoxes concerning common-sense notions such as contact and location. But this should not be taken to count against its possibility but motivate us to refine and clarify these common-sense notions. 

In our view, the situation with the “space of explanations” or “space of reason” is analogous: we should not simply assume that there are unexplained explanantia. Rethinking our conception of the world in view of the possibility that it might not have a foundation opens up new, exciting – even potentially revolutionary – avenues of research. The aim of this project is to examine the credentials of the foundationalist orthodoxy – often expressed by saying that reality is wellfounded – and to ask what might be gained by thinking in different ways.

More details can be found in our funding application. You can find out more information about the project team here, or upcoming events here

logo: capital letters NSNf on grey, white and blue background, accompanied by text that reads Swiss National Science Foundation