Notes from: The Elements of Coherentism (L. Bonjour)

August 15, 2012 — Leave a comment

What is Coherentism and does it endorse circular reasoning?

The Very Idea of a Coherence Theory

Coherentism is a response to the epistemic regress problem. This chapter deals with coherence theories of empirical justification and not coherence theories of truth. They are also a response to skepticism.

“If the regress of empirical justification does not terminate in basic empirical beliefs, then it must either (1) terminate in unjustified beliefs, (2) go on infinitely (without circularity), or (3) circle back upon itself in some way.”

Option 1 is skepticism and as such can be set aside until all other alternatives have been seen to fail. Option 2 has never been amplified into a developed position and is also seemingly skeptical. Therefore option 3 is the only non-skeptical account of empirical knowledge. Option 3 is coherence theory.

Essentially a finite set of justified empirical beliefs can only be justified from within, by virtue of the relations of its component beliefs to each other.

Linear vs. nonlinear justification

“The initial problem is whether and how a coherence theory constitutes even a prima facie solution to the epistemic regress problem.” (89)

Essentially, the propositions and their empirical justifications depend on each other and hang together in some sort of complicated, multidimensional network. In a sense, to call it circular is not befitting and perhaps even misleading. A foundationalists response to the coherentist position would be to assert that the logic entails that it cannot be justified unless it is already justified: “… the justification of such a belief depends, indirectly but still quite inescapably, on its own logically prior justification.” (p90)

Whilst this is a clear cut case of logic, there are issues. The assumption built into this reasoning is that inferential justification is essentially linear in character; that it is one dimensional. Epistemic justification is passed along from the earlier to the later beliefs. This linear sequence generates the regress problem in the first place.

“Thus the primary coherentist response to the regress problem cannot be merely the idea that justification moves in a circle, for this would be quite futile by itself; rather such a position must repudiate the linear conception of justification in its entirety.” (p90)

” … inferential justification, despite its linear appearance, is essentially systematic or holistic in character: beliefs are justified by being inferentially related to other beliefs in the overall context of a coherent system.” (p90)

Coherentism suggests a criteria of an overall system of beliefs:

1) The inferability of that particular belief from other particular beliefs and further relations among particular empirical beliefs.
2) The coherence of the overall system of empirical beliefs.
3) The justification of the overall system of empirical beliefs.
4) The justification of the particular belief in question, by virtue of its membership in the system.

Each of these steps depends on the one that precedes it.

Steps 2 and 3 are important as they get the system of beliefs away from a linear structure, thus avoiding or side stepping the regress problem. This system is ripe for scrutiny and needs to be interrogated. (return to page 92)

The Concept of Coherence

Though there is no thorough or detailed comparative assessment of the concept of coherence it can be defined as a matter of how well a body of beliefs ‘hang’ together: a network or web of belief. This chapter makes the point that all foundationalist arguments inevitably depend on coherence no matter how strong they might be, if the set of beliefs goes beyond direct experience.

This gives room for skeptical arguments:

“… what it shows is that all non-skeptical epistemologies are fundamentally flawed by virtue of their dependence on this inadequately explicated concept.” (p94)

Thus there are two significant alternatives. Coherentism, which is rooted in intuition, is not yet completely clarified yet is immanent in all our thinking, and, skepticism, which also carries a significant burden of implausibility.

Some points to clarify coherentism (details p95):

1) it is not to be equated with mere consistency
2) coherence has to do with the mutual inferability of the beliefs in the system
3) relations of explanation are one central ingredient in coherence, though not the only one
4) coherence may be enhanced through conceptual change

Coherence: Not merely the absence of conflict:

Consider two sets of propositions: set A and set B. A contains “this chair is brown”, “electrons are negatively charged”, and “today is Thursday”. B contains “all ravens are black”, “this bird is a raven”, and “this bird is black”. Both are free of contradiction and probabilistically consistent. In the case of A, each proposition are entirely irrelevant to each other. Thus A possesses only a very low level of coherence. B is evidently much more coherent than A, though obviously to a very low degree.

What Sort of of positive connection is required?

“The coherence of a system of beliefs is increased by the presence of inferential connections between its component beliefs and increased in proportion to the number and strength of such connections.”

“The coherence of a system of beliefs is diminished to the extent to which it is divided into subsystems of beliefs which are relatively unconnected to each other by inferential connections. ” (p98)

Consider the system of beliefs as either a unified whole, or as something broken up into subsets: to what what degree can these subsets be independent?

The Doxastic Presumption

So far there have been two elements considered which are arguably essential to a viable coherence theory: non-linear justification and coherence itself. A third essential is the presumption regarding one’s grasp of one’s own system of beliefs.

“… if the fact of coherence is to be accessible to the believer, it follows that he must somehow have an adequate grasp of his total system of beliefs, since it is the corehence with this system which is at issue.” (p102)

Having a grasp of one’s own system of beliefs inevitably involves a set of empirical metabeliefs, which themselves require justification. This returns us to the earlier logic problem that something is justified in view of its dependence upon that which it is justifying. For foundationalists, this highlights that that a coherence theory must involve an irreducibly foundationalist element.

Doxastic: means cognitive. It is what binds a justification to a belief. A cognitive state has a truth value and can have the property of being justified. A doxastic state is a belief or a judgement, as opposed to an intuition, instinct or simple and pure sense experience.

BonJour’s Observation requirement:

“… a coherence theory of empirical justification must require that in order for the beliefs of a cognitive system to be even candidates for empirical justification, that system must attributing a high degree reliability to a reasonable variety of cognitively spontaneous beliefs … The underlying idea is that any claim in the system which is not justified a priori should in principle be capable of being observationally checked, either directly or indirectly, and thereby either confirmed or refuted.” (141)


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