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No Help for the Coherentist

Author(s): Peter Klein and Ted A. Warfield


Source: Analysis, Vol. 56, No. 2 (Apr., 1996), pp. 118-121
Published by: Oxford University Press on behalf of The Analysis Committee
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II8
the discussion in Parfit 1984: 391
ff.)
But I think it underlies Kahneman's
and
my
intuitive
response
to the ethical
question
raised
by
Kahneman's
research.1
University of
St Andrews
Fife
KY16 9AL
John.
Broome@st-andrews.ac.uk
References
Kahneman,
D. 1994. The
cognitive psychology
of
consequences
and moral intuition.
Tanner Lecture on Human
Values, University
of
Michigan.
Publication forth-
coming.
Kahneman, D.,
B. L.
Fredrickson,
C.
Schreiber,
and D. A. Redelmeier.
1993. When more
pain
is
preferred
to less:
adding
a better end.
Psychological
Science 4: 401-5.
Narveson, J.
1967. Utilitarianism and new
generations.
Mind 76: 62-72.
Parfit,
D. 1984. Reasons and Persons. Oxford: Oxford
University
Press.
1I
am
grateful
to
Douglas
MacLean for an
encouraging
conversation we had about
this
paper,
while
walking
in the Garden
Quarter
of New Orleans. MacLean tells me
that
my
conclusions
represent
a male
point
of view.
PETER KLEIN & TED A. WARFIELD
No
help for
the coherentist
PETER KLEIN & TED A. WARFIELD
In 'What
price
coherence?'
(1994)
we
argued
that coherentism about
epis-
temic
justification
is
incompatible
with the existence of an intimate
connection between
epistemic justification
and truth. Trenton Merricks
has
replied, claiming
that our
argument 'depends upon evaluating
the truth
conduciveness of a
theory
of
justification
at the
system
level
-
justification
is truth conducive
only if,
according
to
[Klein
and
Warfield],
the more
justi-
fied a set or
system
of beliefs
is,
the more
likely
it is that the set or
system
contains no false beliefs'
(Merricks
1995:
306).
Merricks
goes
on to claim
that truth conduciveness should be evaluated at the level of
particular
beliefs,
not at the level of
systems
of belief. He concludes that while we
have shown that
adding
to the coherence of a set of beliefs often reduces
the likelihood that the set contains
only
true
members,
this does not
imply
that coherence is not truth conducive when truth
conducivity
is evaluated
at the level of individual beliefs.
ANALYSIS
56.2, April 1996, pp.
118-121.
?
Peter Klein and Ted A. Warfield
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NO HELP FOR THE COHERENTIST
II19
But this
reply
does not rescue the
coherentist,
nor does it even
help
the
coherentist.
Indeed,
the
reply
loses
sight
of the fact that we were
addressing
coherentists. Merricks claims that we are committed to the view that
whether or not a
theory
of
justification
is truth conducive must be evalu-
ated at the level of
systems
of beliefs. His
only
evidence for this erroneous
attribution is that we
argue
that coherentism is not truth conducive
by
showing
that
increasing
the coherence of a set of beliefs often decreases the
likelihood that the set contains
only
true members.
Whether or not a
given theory
of
epistemic justification
is truth condu-
cive
depends
on whether or not the
justification
of whatever the
theory
in
question says
is the bearer
of justification
is an indication of the truth of
that bearer of
justification. Thus,
the
way
to examine this issue is to check
and see if an increase in whatever the
theory
in
question says justification
is
implies
an increase in the likelihood of the truth of whatever the
theory
says
the bearer of
justification
is. Because different theories of
justification
might disagree
as to what items are the bearers of
justification (for
exam-
ple,
are
they
individual beliefs or sets of
beliefs?)
no
sweeping
generalizations
about which
'level'
such
inquiry
should occur are
possible.1
In 'What
price coherence?',
we
applied
this
thinking
to the case of coher-
entism. Coherence is
clearly
a
property
of sets of beliefs and not of
individual beliefs. While definitions of coherence will
vary,
the essential
claim is that coherence is a matter of
logical/explanatory/epistemic
'fit'
among
beliefs. A set of beliefs is coherent
just
in case its member beliefs
'appropriately hang together'
whatever
precise
characterization of that is
given.
Because coherence is a
property
of sets of
beliefs,
if coherentism
about
justification
is correct and
justification
is truth
conducive,
then
increasing
the coherence of a set of beliefs should
typically
increase the
likelihood of its truth
(that is,
the likelihood that it contains
only
true
members). But,
as we showed and as Merricks
agrees
we
showed,
increas-
ing
the coherence of a set of beliefs often decreases the likelihood that the
set contains
only
true members.
So,
as we
argued,
if coherentism about
epistemic justification
is
correct,
then
epistemic justification
is not truth
conducive
(see
also
Sayre-McCord 1985).
Merricks claims that because our
'argument against
the coherentist turns
on the fact that the more
logically independent
beliefs a
system has,
the less
likely
it is to contain
only
true beliefs' we 'are committed to the claim that
if
justification
is truth
conducive,
then
systems
of belief cannot
possibly
1 For the
record,
we both believe that
justification
is a
property
of individual beliefs.
This, however,
does not
change
the fact that whether or not a
given theory
of
justifi-
cation is truth conducive
depends
on whether or not there is an intimate connection
between the
justification
of whatever the
theory says
is the bearer of
justification
and
the truth of the
alleged
bearers of
justification.
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I 20 PETER KLEIN & TED A. WARFIELD
become more
justified
as
they grow (in logically independent beliefs)' (1995:
307).
But that misses the
point
of our
argument.
We
argued
that if
justifica-
tion is both truth conducive and as coherentists characterize it
(namely
as
coherence,
a
property
of sets of
beliefs)
then
systems
of beliefs cannot
possi-
bly
become more
justified
as
they grow
in
logically independent
beliefs.
Contrast the
plight
of coherentists with the situation of
typical
founda-
tionalists. Foundationalists can claim that
individual, properly
basic beliefs
(beliefs
that
satisfy
certain criteria and serve as the evidential basis for
other
beliefs)
are
justified and, consequently, very likely
to be true -
perhaps
because of their causal
aetiology
- and that individual beliefs
properly inferentially
based on
properly
basic beliefs are
justified and,
consequently, likely
to be true because the inferences are truth
preserving.
Thus,
foundationalists can hold:
(1)
that as sets of
justified
beliefs increase
in size the likelihood that the sets contain
only
true members
diminishes,
and
(2)
that
justification
as characterized
by foundationalism
is truth
conducive because individual beliefs which
satisfy
foundationalists' cri-
teria for
justification
are
likely
to be true.
Merricks seems to think that a coherentist can
cheerfully recognize
that
increasing
the coherence of a
system
of beliefs often decreases the likeli-
hood that the
system
contains
only
true members. He seems to think that
a coherentist can
accept
this
by claiming
that truth
conducivity
should be
evaluated at the level of individual beliefs. But one can claim this
only
if
one thinks that the
property
that is
justification
is a
property
of individual
beliefs and as we saw
earlier,
coherence is not such a
property.
One
might
think that a coherentist about
justification
can
easily
extend the notion of
coherence so that it does
apply straightforwardly
to individual
beliefs,
thereby avoiding
the evaluation of truth
conducivity
at the level of sets of
beliefs.2 We would like to
point
out in
closing
that the natural
way
to
try
to do this is a clear failure.
One
might
think that a coherentist can
simply
maintain that the bearers
of
justification
are individual
beliefs,
but that coherentism about
justifica-
tion is also correct because an individual belief is
justified just
in case it is
a member of a coherent belief
set.3
This
attempted
extension of the notion
2
Merricks does not
attempt
to do this and
perhaps
he would not want to
try
to do so.
We raise this issue because a common reaction to our
argument
has been to claim that
coherentists can extend the notion of coherence to individual beliefs.
3 For this sort of coherentist account of
justification
to be truth
conducive,
increases in
the coherence of a set of beliefs must be
intimately
connected with increases in the
likelihood of truth of each
particular
member of the
set, though
not in the increased
likelihood that the set itself contains
only
true members. The burden is on
any
coher-
entist
endorsing
such a view to show that coherence understood as a
property
of
individual beliefs is truth conducive.
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NO HELP FOR THE COHERENTIST 12I
of coherence to individual beliefs is a failure.
The
proposed
account
implies
the
absurdity
that either
every
one of
my
beliefs is
justified
or none of them is
justified.
To see
this,
consider
my
total
set of beliefs. If one of the members of that set is
justified, then, according
to the
proposed account, my
belief set is coherent
and, consequently,
all of
my
beliefs are
justified
because
they
are all members of a coherent belief
set. But if one of
my
beliefs is not
justified,
then it is
not,
according
to the
proposed account,
a member of a coherent set of beliefs
and, consequently,
none of
my
beliefs is
justified.
The coherentist
might try
to avoid this
absurdity by constructing 'appro-
priate'
subsets of
my
beliefs and
holding
that a belief is
justified just
in case
it is a member of an
appropriately
constructed coherent subset of
my
total
set of beliefs. We
grant
that a
proper
subset of a set of incoherent beliefs
can be
coherent,
but we see no
principled way
for these subsets to be
constructed that
appeals only
to coherence. And were coherentists to
appeal
to some
property
other than coherence that such
'appropriate'
subsets
possess (e.g., proper basicality
and/or
proper relationships
to
prop-
erly
basic
beliefs) they
would have abandoned their
coherentist
account of
justification.
Thus,
we continue to believe that if coherentism about
epistemic
justification
is correct then
epistemic justification
is not truth conducive.
Rutgers,
The State
University of
New
Jersey
New
Brunswick,
NJ
08903 USA
klein@zodiac.rutgers.edu
The
University of
Notre Dame
Notre
Dame,
IN
46556 USA
warfield.3@nd.edu
References
Klein,
P. and
T.
A. Warfield. 1994. What
price
coherence?
Analysis
54: 129-32.
Merricks, T.
1995. On behalf of the coherentist.
Analysis
55: 306-9.
Sayre-McCord,
G. 1985. Coherence and models for moral
theorizing. Pacific
Philo-
sophical Quarterly
6: 170-90.
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