Trying To Think
Wednesday, June 16, 2004
Second Short Essay - Coherence Theory of Justification
The coherence theory of justification, or “epistemic coherentism”, claims that “all justification of beliefs depends on coherence within a system of beliefs” (pg82, Moser et al, 1998). It is usefully contrasted with foundationalism, in which “the direction of justification is all one-way, and … there are some comparatively fixed points in the structure, the basic beliefs” (pg110, Dancy, 1985); i.e. we justify any given belief by referring to other, more basic beliefs. The coherence theory of justification does without these basic beliefs, and justifies beliefs on the coherence of the belief-set they create. This belief-set is coherent “to the extent that the members are mutually explanatory and consistent.” (p112, Dancy, 1985)

One objection to epistemic coherentism is that it does not seem to be compatible with empiricism - “the view that the evidence of the senses … is a sort of evidence appropriate to genuine knowledge”, pg188, Moser et al, 1998. If we are empiricists, then our belief-set needs to be more than simply coherent –our beliefs must also be consistent with our experience. The empiricist objection to epistemic coherentism has two parts: one part is based on whether perceptions can be part of the belief-set; the other is the special status of perceptual beliefs.

The first can be called the “isolation objection” (pg85, Moser et al, 1998). Beliefs are justified by reference to the coherence of the belief-set, but this belief-set traditionally excludes data such as perceptual states, which are non-propositional. To allow for empiricism, the gap between experience and belief must somehow be bridged. Naturally, other models of belief must also bridge the gap between experience and belief. For example, the empirical foundationalist wishes for his basic beliefs to be directly related in some way to non-propositional perceptual states. The isolation objection can be raised against any model of belief, and if the required link between perception and belief cannot be established, then it is empirical justification in general that has been undermined, and not only an empirical coherence model of justification.

One way of allowing interaction is to deny that there is a fundamental distinction between belief and experience (following Kant, as quoted in Darcy, 1985). In this case, it would arbitrary as to whether we extend the belief-set to include experience, or allow experience to somehow influence the set. In either case, beliefs that are wholly disconnected from experience could not be justified.

The second part to the objection is that beliefs which are grounded in experience ought to have a privileged justification, by virtue of having been caused by experience. There is no place for any special roles within simple coherence, because the nature or source of the belief is irrelevant; justification is provided only by the belief’s effect on the coherence of the set.
One response to this is to propose a weaker version of coherency theory, which allows for differences between beliefs. This theory would distinguish between beliefs with “antecedent security” (the security or justification that a belief brings with it, regardless of coherence) and “subsequent security” (acquired through a belief’s contribution to the coherency of the belief-set). This form of coherency seems simply to be “another name for a form of foundationalism” (pg122, Darcy, 1985), since the beliefs with antecedent security will provide a foundation for those with only subsequent security.
A second response is to acknowledge that sensory beliefs have the following status: we accept them as true so long as nothing counts against them. This acknowledgment seems to fit the demands of empiricism. We can then argue that this is our approach to all beliefs: “any belief will remain until there is some reason to reject it” (pg124, Darcy, 1985). We are naturally credulous, and this credulity is essential for any learning: “For how can a child immediately doubt what it is taught? That could only mean that he was incapable of learning certain language games.” (283, Wittgenstein, 1999)

Arguably, there ought to be an additional empirical demand on our theory of justification: that it take more evidence to reject a sensory belief than a non-sensory one. Coherence theory can accommodate this demand by adding “stubborn empiricism” as a belief to the belief-set. If our belief-set contains the belief that sensory experience is inherently reliable, only overwhelming incoherence from other beliefs will be sufficient to reject a sensory belief (Darcy, 1985). This seems to be a better alternative to weak coherency, for it not only a simpler theory, but allows for belief sets that are not empirical (such as delusional or fictional belief sets).

The coherence theory of justification is, therefore, compatible with empiricism. Perceptions can influence the belief-set, and so ground it in experience, and the special role of perceptual beliefs demanded by empiricism can be handled without resorting to foundationalism.

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