While looking for knowledge we tend to forget that the situations experienced by our senses might not always be supported by an objective set of beliefs. In this essay I will discuss this issue and defend how much preconceived ideas really do influence our views on reality and how this is, in the latter, a problem that foundationalism will encounter when being used as a method to achieve truth. Is there such a thing as an absolute objective truth in a world of relativity? And what is also important, how can we be sure that the basic beliefs that are held by foundationalists are true?
The problem presented by our preconceptions has been much debated about before. One of the theories that developed from this debate was the one the empiricist John Locke in his 1689 Essay Concerning Human Understanding, in which we could argue from his empiricist point of view that we are born with a tabula rasa or black slate. Our minds are born being completely blank and not holding any other previous concepts. These concepts are to be developed during one’s lifetime after experiencing the sensible world around us. All the ideas we possess are brought to us either by a physical or a mental impression from the material world that we can perceive through our senses. This is something that would, to a certain extent, make us creators of our own knowledge and set of beliefs.
If we applied this theory to the world surrounding us, we could argue that, although we have no actual knowledge of the information that is contained in the mind of a new born baby or a young child, we do know that the complex set of views on the world they will create will be influenced by the situation he or she is exposed to. This situation can vary hugely depending on certain details we have no control upon, such as the place or the time of birth. The sociological entourage to which a child is exposed to in a Third World Country will never be the same as the one lived by a child born in Europe; in the same way that the ideas that were believed in during the Eighteenth Century are not the same as the ones that a child could have through experience nowadays. Hence, our preconceptions change depending on the social conditions that surround us.
By assuming Locke’s point of view, we would be rejecting rationalism or any other philosophical method and taking empiricism as the only way to access knowledge. However, as Descartes would argue that our sensible impressions of the world could be mistaken and we would have been misled to having false knowledge. But if we were to take the Cartesian method as a true way of accessing knowledge and defend the existence of a priori, indubitable and innate truths in our mind would imply that we are holders of absolute truth. This statement leads us to being mistaken again, as we wonder if an imperfect human is capable of creating something perfect.
This theory can be taken into the field of psychology as well. Experts in the field have argued in the past that once a preconceived idea has supported a certain piece of knowledge in a person’s mind, it is difficult to demolish its power on the believer, even though it might be false. As a matter of fact, some psychologists like R. C. Andersen and Ros studied the importance of preconceived ideas by carrying out several tests. After having created a fake belief in someone’s mind, when this idea is discredited, 75% of people refused to stop believing the knowledge they had developed based on this false belief.
Perceptions are dependent on epistemic knowledge. Oppositely to foundationalism, we must argue that our experiences are always influenced by a certain knowledge that is held in our mind. This knowledge, which we cannot avoid, will be the reason for certain impressions from reality we may have. Our senses have an epistemic underline to them. This idea can be backed up by cases in which two people that live the same sensory experience, but gain different impressions from it, because of the existence of a prior epistemic. This is something that I experienced when I was younger. My father and I went to an art exhibition. In there, we both saw the same beautifully painted portraits that seemed to have been painted by a famous and experienced painter. However, I then came to know from my father that author of these portraits was a Peruvian girl named Verónica Pacheco, who suffered from autism and who found in painting a way to express herself. We had both appreciated it, but the way we saw the same perception was completely different. While I was oblivious of this fact and found it nice, he could appreciate her art so much more Seeing, hearing and our senses as a whole are epistemic. Sellars argued that perceptual knowledge had to have a set of epistemic beliefs, because they could not be justified on their own.
This is why preconceived ideas affect the way we perceive, interpret and remember information. Despite the search of an objective reality, the achieved reality tends to be seen as if we were wearing a pair of sunglasses that tint our impressions by thoughts and values that shape our way of interpreting information. We build up our beliefs from our actual experiences, which can change as fast or as slow as our mind wishes. This can be backed by a common example: when a relationship with another person goes through problems, our impression on that person changes and becomes negative. Even though we remember previously good experiences, our opinion and sight of reality in this time is affected by the deterioration of the relationship by the latter events. Our mind, therefore, has created a distorted outlook on reality.
In addition, and because of the way our mind is built in, whenever we hold a preconceived idea, we will tend to take notice or remark only on the details that confirm this certain way of perceiving reality.
Our statements and experiences are usually labelled by words like “good”, “bad”, “unfair”, “never”, “forever”, but how could we really decide the real meaning of these terms? And what is more important, if we are not capable of defining them, is it fine to use them when referring to knowledge?
This leads us to believe that objective thinking does not exist in individuals, as our preconceptions do influence our way of thinking, even though we try to avoid this from happening. As a consequence, not only our senses but even our mind (both dependent of one another) have turned our impression of the world into an individual phenomenon.
This is where the argument for foundationalism sees its main problems, as from this point of view we would discourage the belief of the existence of objective basic fundamental beliefs. No belief can be objective as they must be always placed in a certain context and when that happens, they become subjective. Not only this, but the basic fundamental ideas that we rely on following foundationalism depend on our sensory experience on its own, and has no need of any conceptual backup. However, as Sellars proposed, I believe that perceptions cannot be justified without the epistemology behind them.
Therefore, we shall argue that preconceived thoughts do affect greatly the way we see the world. Foundationalism is affected by these preconceived ideas, as we cannot defend raw perceptions without any intellectual input behind them. If this were the case, we would not be sure whether our concepts are true or false, just by basing it on our sensory perceptions. Experience and beliefs become a highly personal phenomenon.