WHAT IS THE MÜNCHHAUSEN TRILEMMA?
The Münchhausen trilemma is a problem in the branch of philosophy known as epistemology; the Münchhausen trilemma, also known as Agrippa’s trilemma, reveals that any theory of knowledge cannot be certain and that all beliefs are unjustified.
In other words, justified beliefs, which are beliefs founded on reason and logic, cannot be obtained, as the Münchhausen trilemma demonstrates the impossibility of justified premises.
There have been numerous attempts to establish justified beliefs, but none have been satisfactory thus far. And so, the Münchhausen trilemma thought experiment is still a problem for any theory of knowledge
The Münchhausen trilemma leads us to unjustified beliefs and deprives us of certainty in knowledge because it stops us from forming a theory of knowledge via fallacious reasoning: e.g.,
When we rid our philosophy from arbitrary assumptions, unjustified premises, or circular reasoning, as the trilemma so dictates, we likewise have to obviate all notions of justified belief and certainty because all known origin points for any theory of knowledge involve some form of the above mentioned fallacies.
To see how the Münchhausen trilemma demonstrates that any theory of knowledge cannot be proven, consider the various responses, written below, that one can give when their worldview is questioned.
To give an example of the Münchhausen trilemma, we will use realism as the theory of knowledge to be skeptical towards.
Briefly, a realist believes the contents of perception are mind-independent and exist objectively outside the person; they believe we have a one-to-one correspondence between our minds and reality. Thus, the realist has justified beliefs, since he or she sees a real world. Their theories of knowledge are objectively the case.
When we ask the realist, who believes they see reality objectively so, how they have derived that belief, they can respond with an appeal to sense perception. They construct their theory of knowledge on the grounds of perception.
An appeal to sense perception simply means that the realist relies on their senses to know things; for example, “I know there is a book on my desk, because I can see it“.
So, the realist can say, “I know the apple is red because I can verify that claim up against my senses; that is, I can see that the apple is plainly red”.
The Problem Of Perception
However, as the Münchhausen trilemma so encourages us to do, when we ask the realist how they can rely on their sense-perceptions for their theory of knowledge, trouble arises; unjustified beliefs begin to emerge.
Since we have a first-person perspective onto the world, which means we live within experience, we cannot step outside our own point of view.
That means, we cannot verify whether our sensory experiences are accurate or not; we cannot know if sensory experience corresponds to a real world environment or not. And that is a problem for anyone who wants epistemic justification from sense perception.
Relying on sense perceptions for a theory of knowledge, the realist has to argue, “apples are red if I perceive them to be red, and I perceive the apple to be red; therefore, apples are red”. This is circular reasoning, as it appeals to sense perception to verify something found in sense perception.
So, if the realist appeals to sense perception, then, as the Münchhausen trilemma predicted, they have a fallacious starting point for their worldview.
Another possible response to the Münchhausen trilemma is to appeal to yet more premises; that is, when someone asks the realist, “how do you know reality exists independently of the mind,” the realist can produce an infinite regression of premises.
An infinite regression is when we use one premise to infer another premise, and then we repeat that ad infinitum. Doing so builds a theory of knowledge known as infinitism.
Some people believe infinite regressions are valid, as they produce no fallacies insofar as they maintain consistency, but infinite regressions cannot be used for justifications anymore than “I don’t know” can be used to justify knowledge.
The reason being, we have to assume that the next premise inside the infinite regression is valid, which is not a justification its self.
Or, as equally bad, we have to accept that an unverified premise is grounds for justification; that uncertainty leads to a valid theory of knowledge.
Thus, when the realist relies on an infinite regression for a theory of knowledge, they have no means to justify their worldview, which demonstrates further the problems put forth by the Münchhausen trilemma.
The last response a realist can give to the Münchhausen trilemma, so as to justify their theory of knowledge, is to simply use arbitrary reasoning: axioms.
Axioms are assertions or tautologies, of which embrace circular reasoning. They are true by virtue of someone’s declaration that they are true.
So, when people question the foundations of realism, like whether there is a correspondence between the mind and reality, or whether our sense perceptions are valid or not, the realist can just assume so.
The realist can assume sensory perceptions are valid, or the realist can assume they are perceiving an objective reality. And from there, they can construct a theory of knowledge around those assumptions.
But the problem herein be that a counter-worldview can follow precisely the same line of reasoning and suppose a different set of assumptions, from which they derive negations of the realists worldview.
So, arbitrary assumptions fail to provide a cogent justification, which means the Münchhausen trilemma has thusly demonstrated the impossibility of certainty.
THE MÜNCHHAUSEN TRILEMMA CANNOT BE SOLVED
The Münchhausen trilemma leads to unjustified beliefs because we are unable to provide justification for our evidence and beliefs; that is, when we look at the premises for world-views like realism, and then ask what justification these premises have, we will engage in: arbitrary assumptions, infinite regression, or circular reasoning.
And those responses to the trilemma will always be the case, as we can only give more premises, perceptions, or axioms to respond to skepticism; these fallacies are ingrained into human nature.
Put otherwise, no one will solve the münchhausen trilemma because humans have to reason from fallacious starting points; therefore, justified beliefs and certainty are impossible.