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Being without Foundations

English title Being without Foundations
Applicant Blum Philipp
Number 182847
Funding scheme Project funding
Research institution Philosophisches Seminar der Universität Luzern
Institution of higher education University of Lucerne - LU
Main discipline Philosophy
Start/End 01.09.2019 - 31.08.2023
Approved amount 829'361.00
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Keywords (11)

philosophy; metaphysics; regress; five-ways; non-wellfoundedness; theology; time-travel; because; causal-loops; cosmological-arguments; grounding

Lay Summary (German)

Being Without Foundations -- infinite Regresse in der Metaphysic
Lay summary
Die zeitgenössische Metaphysik zeichnet ein Bild der Welt als einer in verschiedenen "Schichten" gegliederten Sachertorte, worin sich höhere Ebenen auf tiefere reduzieren lassen, auf diesen gegründet sind oder aus ihnen emergieren: sogenannte "higher level" Phänomene wie soziale Gruppen, Überzeugungen, chemische Verbindungen "ergeben" sich dabei auf je verschiedene und kontrovers diskutierte Weisen aus tieferen, fundamentaleren Phänomenen wie beispielsweise den Elementarteilchen. Obwohl die Natur dieser Fundierungsbeziehungen und der Status der fundierten Dinge höchst umstritten sind, wird doch im allgemeinen angenommen, dass die Sachertorte einen Boden hat, dass es eine maximal fundamentale Schicht von Dingen gibt. 
Unser Projekt untersucht, welche Konsequenzen sich aus der Falschheit dieser Annahme für die Philosophie und für unser allgemeines Weltbild ergeben würden. Was wäre im Fall von "turtles all the way down", einem infiniten Regress der Fundierungsrelation? Solche Fragen wurden in der Geschichte vor allem auch im Zusammenhang mit dem kosmologischen Beweis Gottes als erstem Beweger und in der Frage der Verträglichkeit einer unendlichen Vergangenheit (es kann keinen ersten Augenblick in der Zeit geben, weil etwas vorher wäre) mit der biblischen Schöpfungsgeschichte diskutiert. Unser Projekt versucht, unter Zuhilfenahme der Werkzeuge der zeitgenössischen Philosophie, insbesondere der Logik, in dieser Frage Fortschritte zu erzielen. 
Direct link to Lay Summary Last update: 03.07.2019

Responsible applicant and co-applicants


Project partner

Associated projects

Number Title Start Funding scheme
113688 Properties and Relations 01.06.2007 Project funding
165815 Metaphysik und Ontologie in der Schweiz im Zeitalter der Reformation (1519-1648) 01.11.2016 Project funding
173040 Connectives, Predicates, and Priority 01.06.2017 Project funding
165738 Quantities 01.08.2016 Project funding


The project is a collaboration between Dr. Philipp Blum (Faculty of Theology, University of Lucerne; Corresponding Applicant) and Dr. Stephan Leuenberger (Dept. of Philosophy, University of Glasgow). It is to run from 1 September 2019 to 31 August 2022 and involves, in addition to the two applicants, two post-docs and a PhD candidate. We will work with two groups of project partners. The members of the first group will give scientific input from the philosophy of physics and the philosophies of logic and mathematics, respectively: Prof. Kerry McKenzie, Departement of Philosophy, University of California at San Diego; Prof. Bruno Whittle, Department of Philosophy, Texas Tech University. The members of the second group form an advisory board, offering guidance with project management: Prof. Kevin Mulligan (Università della Svizzera Italiana, Lugano); Prof. Gianfranco Soldati (University of Fribourg); Prof. Giovanni Ventimiglia (University of Lucerne). Aims. Theology, philosophy, and natural science are in the business of telling us what the world is fundamentally like - or so many of us think. But characterizing their aim in this way seems to take it for granted that there is such a thing as ultimate or fundamental reality. In this project, we question this central presupposition of the received world-view. We will investigate whether the structure of reality might be radically different from how it is generally taken to be: an infinite succession of ever more fundamental levels, or cycles of dependence. In short, the aim of this project is to examine the credentials of the dominant foundationalist paradigm and ask what would be at stake if we gave it up.Background. Reality seems to come in layers or levels, some of which are more fundamental than others. A central concern of contemporary philosophical debate is the articulation of the relationship between these levels. Facts at a lower level - the level of physics, say - are said to "ground" facts at the higher level - the level of chemistry, say. 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 of what the nature of the fundamental level is: does it consist of a divine entity, or of a multitude of contingent physical facts, or of something else entirely? Answering that question then seems to be the ultimate goal of inquiry. Our project questions the assumption, and explores alternatives to it. The view that there is an infinite sequence of ever lower levels, without an endpoint, is sometimes more colourfully expressed by the slogan that there are "turtles all the way down". The view that there is no fundamental level may even be seen as suggested by modern physics, via the following quasi-inductive argument: atoms turned out to have protons, neutrons and electrons as parts; protons and neutrons turned out to have quarks as parts, and ...? Nonetheless, the view has typically been given short shrift and deserves a far more careful examination. In particular, it questions our assumption that reality forms a somehow 'completed' whole, that there is such a thing as one totality of things at all. This theme has been the topic of many discussions in the history of philosophy, but their potential to recalibrate the contemporary landscape has not yet been realised. Research Approach and Methods. To make our question more precise, it is natural to formulate using the concept of non-wellfoundedness, which has been extensively studied in mathematics, particularly in the area of mathematical logic concerned with sets (i.e. collections of objects). So-called "non-wellfounded set theories" allow sets to contain themselves as members, or to contain infinitely descending chains of membership - something that is ruled out in orthodox set theory. Within physics, the possibility of causal loops - and with it of time machines and time travel - has been investigated in connection to the General Theory of Relativity and its models. Our work will build on these sophisticated treatments of infinite and circular dependence. For this purpose, we will draw on the expertise in philosophy of logic and philosophy of physics that our project partners offer. Within philosophy, questions about non-wellfoundedness have received some sporadic attention, but have not been systematically studied, and the results from disparate literatures have not been synthesised. There is a long tradition of thinking about whether there is an ultimate foundation (or 'bottom level') in philosophy of religion, in the context of the discussion of so-called "cosmological arguments" for the existence of God. These arguments claim that things in the world depend for their existence on other things, forming a chain of existence leading back to God (as the 'first mover' or foundation). That debate offers a rich menu of distinctions between different concepts of dependence or determination that might be at issue. By and large, though, that debate is insufficiently aware of different mathematical models of wellfoundedness. In contrast, the recent debate on grounding - that is, explanatory relationships between different levels - has started to provide conceptual tools for a rigorous discussion of our research question, gradually realising the significance of the mathematical concepts. By and large, however, that debate makes no use of the subtle arguments and conceptual distinctions concerning non-wellfoundedness developed in the philosophy of religion as well as other areas of philosophy such as epistemology. To the best of our knowledge, the question of the wellfoundedness of reality has never before been approached from such a wide variety of angles. We believe that overcoming such fragmentation will have considerable benefits.