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Coherentism in Epistemology

Coherentism is a theory of epistemic justification. It implies that for a belief to be justified it


must belong to a coherent system of beliefs. For a system of beliefs to be coherent, the beliefs
that make up that system must "cohere" with one another. Typically, this coherence is taken to
involve three components: logical consistency, explanatory relations, and various inductive (non-
explanatory) relations. Rival versions of coherentism spell out these relations in different ways.
They also differ on the exact role of coherence in justifying beliefs: in some versions, coherence
is necessary and sufficient for justification, but in others it is only necessary.

This article reviews coherentisms recent history, and marks off coherentism from other theses.
The regress argument is the dominant anti-coherentist argument, and it bears on whether
coherentism or its chief rival, foundationalism, is correct. Several coherentist responses to this
argument will be examined. A taxonomy of the many versions of coherentism is presented and
followed by the main arguments for and against coherentism. After these arguments, which make
up the main body of the article, a final section considers the future prospects of coherentism.

Table of Contents

1. Introduction

1. History

2. Describing Coherentism

2. The Regress Argument

1. The Argument

2. Coherentist Responses

3. Taxonomy of Coherentist Positions

1. What is it to Belong to a Belief System?

2. What is the Makeup of the Coherence Relation?

1. The Propositional Relation: Deductive Relations

2. The Propositional Relation: Inductive Relations

3. The Propositional Relation: Explanatory Relations

4. The Psychological Realization Condition


4. Arguments for Coherentism

1. For Sufficiency: The Argument from Increased Probability

2. For Necessity: Only Beliefs can Justify Other Beliefs

3. For Necessity: The Need for Justified Background Beliefs

4. For Necessity: The Need for Meta-Beliefs

5. Arguments Against Coherentism

1. Against Sufficiency: The Input and Isolation Arguments

2. Against Sufficiency: The Alternative Coherent Systems Argument

3. Against Necessity: Feasibility Problems

4. Against Necessity: The Preface Paradox

5. Against Necessity: Counterexamples

6. Looking Ahead

7. References and Further Reading

1. Introduction
a. History

British Idealists such as F.H. Bradley (1846-1924) and Bernard Bosanquet (1848-1923)
championed coherentism. So, too, did the philosophers of science Otto Neurath (1882-1945),
Carl Hempel (1905-1997), and W.V. Quine (1908-2000). However, it is a group of contemporary
epistemologists that has done the most to develop and defend coherentism: most notably
Laurence BonJour in The Structure of Empirical Knowledge (1985) and Keith Lehrer in
Knowledge (1974) and Theory of Knowledge (1990), but also Gilbert Harman, William Lycan,
Nicholas Rescher, and Wilfrid Sellars. Despite this long list of names, coherentism is a minority
position among epistemologists. It is probably only in moral epistemology that coherentism
enjoys wide acceptance. Under the influence of a prominent interpretation of John Rawlss
model of wide reflective equilibrium, many moral philosophers have opted for a coherentist view
of what justifies moral beliefs.

b. Describing Coherentism
Epistemological coherentism (or simply "coherentism") needs to be distinguished from several
other theses. Because it is not a theory of truth, coherentism is not the coherence theory of truth.
That theory says that a proposition is true just in case it coheres with a set of propositions. This
theory of truth has fallen out of favor in large part because it is thought to be too permissive an
obviously false proposition such as I am a coffee cup coheres with this set of propositions: I am
not a human, I am in the kitchen cupboard, I weigh 7 ounces. Even contemporary defenders of
coherentism are usually quick to distance themselves from this theory of truth.

Coherentism is also distinct from a thesis about concepts that sometimes goes under the name
concept holism. Roughly, this thesis says that possessing a particular concept requires
possessing a number of other concepts: for example, possessing the concept of assassination
requires also having the concepts of killing and death. Concepts, according to the thesis of
holism, do not come individually, but in packages. What is crucial here is that neither concept
holism nor the coherence theory of truth say anything about the conditions under which a belief
is justified.

So exactly what does coherentism have to say regarding when our beliefs are justified? The
strongest form of coherentism says that belonging to a coherent system of beliefs is

1. necessary for a belief to be justified and

2. by itself sufficient for a belief to be justified.

This viewcall it strong coherentismcan be contrasted with two weaker varieties of


coherentism. Necessity coherentism just makes the necessity claim at (1). It imposes coherence
as what is often called "a structural condition" on justification. Structural conditions just tell us
how beliefs must be related to one another if they are to be justified. However, being related to
one another in the required way may not suffice for justification, since there might be additional
non-structural conditions on justified belief. A particularly lucid statement of necessity
coherentism can be found in the 1992 paper by Kvanvig and Riggs. By contrast, strong
coherentism can be thought of as denying that there are any non-structural conditions.

When thinking about strong coherentism, it is important to appreciate the by itself qualification
in (2). This qualification sets coherentism off from one of its most important rivals. The rival
view is typically classified as non-coherentist, but it still gives coherence a supplemental role in
justifying beliefs. This view claims that coherence can boost the justification of a belief as long
as that belief is already independently justified in some way that is not due to coherence. On this
sort of view, coherence is sufficient to boost beliefs that are independently justified. This,
however, is not thought to be strong enough to deserve the "coherentist" label. To make
coherence sufficient for justification in a way that deserves the label, one must claim that
coherence is sufficient, by itself, to generate justification in other words, coherence must
generate justification from scratch. Call this sufficiency coherentism. Notice, also, that
sufficiency coherentism allows other factors besides coherence to be sufficient for justification.

Another role that non-coherentists sometimes give to coherence comes in a negative condition on
epistemic justification. This condition says that incoherent beliefs fail to be justified. It might
seem that on this view, coherence is necessary for justification. But this only follows if
coherence and incoherence are contradictories. Below, we will see reasons to think that they are
not contradictories, but instead contraries. This explains why a view that says that incoherence
disqualifies beliefs from being justified is not classified as a coherentist view. More is required to
get the claim that coherence is necessary for justification.

There are real difficulties for circumscribing self-styled coherentists. Not every self-styled
coherentist subscribes to either (1) or (2). For example, BonJour, in his 1985 book, held that
meeting the coherence condition is not sufficient for justification, since he claimed that, in
addition, justified beliefs must meet a distinctive internalist condition. Moreover, since BonJour
also held (and still holds) that coherence is not necessary for the justification of a priori beliefs,
strictly speaking he did not hold that coherence is necessary for epistemic justification either.
Still his early view should be classified as coherentist, since he claimed that coherence is a
necessary condition on a wide class of beliefs being justified, namely empirical beliefs.

In what follows, each argument for coherentism will be classified according to whether it aims to
show necessity coherentism, or sufficiency coherentism (this will also cover arguments for
strong coherentism, since it is simply the conjunction of necessity coherentism and sufficiency
coherentism). Similarly, each argument against coherentism will be classified according to
whether it targets necessity coherentism, or sufficiency coherentism (since an argument that
targets either of these views is also an argument against strong coherentism, this will cover
arguments against strong coherentism). Following BonJour and much of the recent literature, the
focus will be on our empirical beliefs and whether there is a coherence condition on the
justification of these beliefs.

One more preliminary point is in order. Since necessity coherentism just makes a claim about the
structure that our justified beliefs must take, it is neutral on whether coherence must be
introspectively accessible if it is to function as a justifier. In other words, it is neutral on the
debate between epistemic internalism and epistemic externalism. So while the most important
recent coherentists namely Laurence BonJour (1985) and Keith Lehrer (1974 and 1990) have
also espoused epistemological internalism, this commitment is over and above that of structural
coherentism. This makes their views incompatible with strong coherentism, since the internalist
commitment is an additional condition over and above that of structural coherentism.

2. The Regress Argument


The Regress Argument goes back at least as far as Aristotle's Prior Analytics, Book 1. Like many
others, Aristotle takes it to support coherentisms chief rival, foundationalism. The argument has
two stages: one that identifies all of the candidate structural conditions; and one that rules against
the coherentist candidate.

a. The Argument

The argument opens with the claim that some of a persons justified beliefs are justified because
they derive their justification from other beliefs. For example, take my justified belief that
tomorrow is Wednesday. That belief is justified by two other beliefs: my belief that today is
Tuesday and my belief that Tuesday is immediately followed by Wednesday. But, if my belief
that tomorrow is Wednesday derives its justification from these other beliefs, then my belief that
tomorrow is Wednesday is justified only if these other beliefs are justified. Consider these other
beliefs. One possibility is that they derive their justification from yet further beliefs, in which
case they are dependent for their justification on those further beliefs if it is, we can shift our
attention to these further beliefs. The other possibility is that these beliefs are justified, but their
justification does not derive from some other justified beliefs.

Three options emerge. According to the foundationalist option, the series of beliefs terminates
with special justified beliefs called basic beliefs: these beliefs do not owe their justification to
any other beliefs from which they are inferred. According to the infinitist option, the series of
relations wherein one belief derives its justification from one or more other beliefs goes on
without either terminating or circling back on itself. According to one construal of the
coherentist option, the series of beliefs does circle back on itself, so that it includes, once again,
previous beliefs in the series.

Standard presentations of the Regress Argument are used to establish foundationalism; to this
end, they include further arguments against the infinitist and coherentist options. These
arguments are the focus of the second stage. Lets focus on the two most popular arguments
against coherentism which figure into the Regress Argument; and lets continue to construe
coherentism as saying that beliefs are justified in virtue of forming a circle. The first argument
makes a circularity charge. By opting for a closed loop, the charge is that coherentism certifies
circular reasoning. A necessity coherentist will be charged with making circular reasoning
necessary for justified belief. A sufficiency coherentist will be charged with making circular
reasoning part of something (namely, coherence) that is sufficient for justified belief. But circular
reasoning is an epistemic flaw, not an epistemic virtue. It is neither necessary, nor part of what is
sufficient, for justified belief; in fact, it precludes justified belief.

The second argument takes aim at the claim that coherence is necessary for justification. Since a
belief is justified only if, through a chain of other beliefs, we ultimately return to the original
belief, coherentism is committed, despite the initial appearance, to the claim that the original
belief is justified, at least in part, by itself. This is supposed to follow from the coherentist
corollary that if the chain of supporting beliefs did not eventually double back on the original
belief, then the original belief would not be justified. But the claim that my belief that tomorrow
is Wednesday is justified (even in part) by itself is mistaken after all, it is derived, via
inference, from other beliefs. Call this, the self-support charge.

b. Coherentist Responses

Coherentists need not resist the first stage of the regress argument since that stage, recall, just
generated the candidate views. Their responses focus on the second stage. That coherentism is
the best of the three candidates is argued for in several ways: by highlighting shortcomings with
infinitism and foundationalism, by giving positive arguments for coherentism (we will look at
these later in Section 4), and by responding to objections against coherentism. Lets continue
with the two objections that have already been tabled, the circularity and self-support objections,
and examine some coherentist responses to these objections.
Some coherentists have responded to the circularity charge by suggesting that reasoning in a
circle is not a problem as long as the circle is large enough. This suggestion has not found much
favor. What is worrisome about circular reasoning, for example, that it is overly permissive since
it allows one to easily construct reasons for any claim whatsoever, applies just as well to large
circles of beliefs.

According to a more instructive reply, the circularity charge and the self-support charge rest on a
misconception about coherentism. Often coherentists point out that their view is that systems of
beliefs are what is, in the first place, justified (or unjustified). Individual beliefs are not the items
that are primarily justified (or unjustified). Put in this light, the whole approach of the regress
argument is question begging. For notice the argument had us begin with an individual belief that
was justified, though conditionally so. Then we went in search of what justifies that belief. This
linear approach to justification led to the circularity and self-support charges. Coherentism,
however, proposes a holistic view of justification. On this kind of view, the primary bearer of
epistemic justification is a system of beliefs. Seen in this light, both charges seem to be question
begging.

Some have argued that the move to holistic justification fails to really answer the circularity and
self-support charges. For even granting that it is a system of beliefs that is primarily justified, it is
still true that a system of beliefs is justified in virtue of the fact that the individual beliefs that
make up the system relate to one another in a circular fashion. And it is still true that a belief
must support itself if it is to be justified, since this is needed if the relevant system of beliefs (and
hence the individual belief) is to be justified. It is not so clear, then, that the reply which
highlights the holistic nature of justification is successful.

However, by conjoining the appeal to epistemic holism with another appeal, a coherentist might
have a fully satisfactory reply. This second appeal identifies another misconception about
coherentism that might lie behind the circularity charge and the self-support charge. This
misconception has to do with the variety of ways in which our beliefs can support one another so
that they come out justified. Coherentists are fond of metaphors like rafts, webs, and bricks in an
arch. These things stay together because their parts support one another. Each part both supports,
and is supported by, other specific parts. So too with justified beliefs: each is both supported by,
and supports, other beliefs. This means that among support relations, there are symmetrical
support relations: one belief can support a second (perhaps mediately through other beliefs),
while the second also supports the first (again, perhaps, mediately). Beliefs that stand in
sufficiently strong support relations to one another are coherent, and therefore justified.

This contrasts with foundationalisms trademark bifurcation of beliefs into basic beliefs and non-
basic beliefs. Basic beliefs do the supporting; non-basic beliefs are what they support. According
to foundationalists, there are no symmetrical support relations. This much is clear enough. The
delicate issue that it raises is this: do the circularity and self-support charges rest on an
assumption that beliefs cannot be justified in virtue of standing in symmetrical support relations
to one another? If the charges require this assumption, then they might beg the question.

Consider the circularity charge first. To simply assert that circular reasoning is epistemically
defective and therefore cannot generate justified beliefs seems very close to simply asserting that
beliefs cannot be justified in virtue of standing in symmetrical support relations. What the
opponent of coherentism must do is tell us more precisely why circular reasoning is
epistemically defective. While the considerations they call on might well imply that symmetrical
support relations do not justify, they will be ineffective if they simply assume this.

We are now in a position to see that the self-support charge is importantly different from the
circularity charge. Where the circularity charge targets the coherentist claim that beliefs are
justified by standing in support relations that are mediated by other beliefs but ultimately return
to themselves, the self-support charge focuses on an alleged implication of this, namely that
beliefs are therefore justified at least in part because they stand in support relations to themselves.
In slogan form: reflexive relations justify.

So what about the self-support charge? Does making this charge require assuming that
symmetrical support relations cannot justify? We need to be careful. While the claim that the
support relation is transitive and the claim that supporting relations link back to a previously
linked belief implies that the relevant belief supports itself, coherentists are not thereby stuck
with the claim that this belief is justified in virtue of supporting itself. Arguably, it is open to the
coherentist to hold, instead, that this belief is justified in virtue of the circular structure of the
support relations, while denying that it is justified in virtue of supporting itself. Still, this may not
be enough, since the coherentist might still have to maintain that justified belief is compatible
with self-support.

3. Taxonomy of Coherentist Positions


Recall that strong coherentism says Ss belief that p is justified if and only if it belongs, and
coheres with, a system of Ss beliefs, and this system is coherent. Central to this formulation are
three notions: the notion of a system of beliefs, the notion of belonging to a system of beliefs,
and the notion of a coherent system of beliefs. Lets look at these in order. As we will see, each
can be spelled out in different ways. The result is that coherentism covers a wide variety of
views.

a. What is it to Belong to a Belief System?

What qualifies a set of beliefs as a system of beliefs? Partly, it is the number of beliefs that make
it up. Minimally, a system of beliefs must consist in at least two beliefs. In a moment, we will see
that two is probably not enough. The other extreme that the size of the relevant system is ones
entire corpus of beliefs must be rejected, on the grounds that any sufficiently strong
incoherence would make all of ones beliefs unjustified. This is implausible, since incoherence in
ones outlook on one topic, say set theory, should not affect the epistemic status of ones outlook
on an unconnected topic, say whether one is presently in pain. Between these two extremes lie a
number of importantly different intermediate positions. There are a few general approaches to
carving out distinct systems of beliefs in a belief corpus. Lets look at four.

One way of individuating systems of beliefs is by reference to their subject-matters. For


example, your beliefs about mathematical matters might form one system of beliefs, while your
beliefs about tonights dinner might form another. Alternatively, systems of beliefs might be
individuated by the sources that produced them: visual beliefs might form one system, auditory
beliefs another, memorial beliefs another, and so forth. The third possibility involves
individuating systems phenomenologically. Beliefs themselves, or perhaps key episodes that
come with acquiring them, might have phenomenological markers. If these markers stand in
similarity relations to one another, this would lead to grouping beliefs into distinct systems. A
final possibility, perhaps the most plausible one, involves individuating systems of beliefs
according to whether the beliefs that belong to a particular system stand in some dependency
relations of a psychological sort to one another for example, a psychological relation like that
involved in inference. We will return to this fourth possibility below.

Lets turn to the second notion, that of belonging to a system of beliefs. According to
straightforward accounts of this notion, for a belief to belong to a system of beliefs, it must relate
to the beliefs that make up that system in just the same way that the beliefs relate to one another
if they are to constitute a system of beliefs. This will involve one of the four possibilities that
were just surveyed.

b. What is the Makeup of the Coherence Relation?

Coherence relations can hold among a set of beliefs that constitute a system. Arguably, coherence
relations can also hold between systems of beliefs. On the simplest view, the latter occurs when
the individual beliefs that are members of the respective systems cohere with one another across
systems. As a result, the beliefs belonging to the respective systems gain in justification. Here, I
will focus on the easier case in which a set of beliefs constitute a single coherent system of
beliefs.

A coherent system of beliefs has two basic marks. First, the beliefs have to have propositional
contents which relate to one another in some specified way. Call this the propositional relation.
Additionally, it is plausible to think that the relevant beliefs must be related to one another in
ones psychology in some way, for example by being inferred from one another. Lets look at the
specifics, starting with the propositional relation.

i. The Propositional Relation: Deductive Relations

We need to consider two relations from deductive logic: logical consistency and mutual
derivability. At a minimum, coherence requires logical consistency. So a set of belief contents,
p1, . pn, is coherent only if p1, . pn neither includes, nor logically entails, a contradiction.
Logical consistency is far from sufficient, though, since a set of beliefs in a scattered array of
propositions can be logically consistent without being justified. Consider, for example, my belief
that Joan is sitting, my belief that 2+2=4, and my belief that tomorrow is Wednesday. While
these beliefs are logically consistent with one another, more needs to be in place if they are to be
justified.

This last set of beliefs illustrates another important point. While coherentists will claim that this
set of beliefs does not exhibit coherence, it is at the same time implausible to claim that this set is
incoherent. It is not incoherent, since no one of the beliefs is in direct conflict with, that is,
contradicts, any of the others. It follows that coherence and incoherence are contraries, not
contradictories. If a set of beliefs is coherent, then it is not incoherent; if a set of beliefs is
incoherent, then it is not coherent; but as this last case illustrates, there are sets of beliefs that fail
to be coherent, but are not incoherent either. The fact that coherence and incoherence are
contraries explains the earlier point about why deeming incoherent beliefs unjustified is not
enough to make one a coherentist. Just because a theory disqualifies incoherent beliefs from
being justified, it is not thereby committed to holding that coherence is necessary for
justification.

Consider, next, mutual derivability. Though it is plausible that logical consistency is necessary
for coherence, it is too much to require that each believed proposition entail each of the other
believed propositions in the system. In fact, it is even too much to require that each believed
proposition entail at least one of the other believed propositions. To see why these requirements
are too strong, consider these four beliefs: the belief that Moe is wincing, the belief that Moe is
squealing, the belief that Moe is yelling that hurts, and the belief that Moe is in pain. None of
these beliefs logically implies any of the others. Nor does the conjunction of any three of them
imply the fourth. Despite the lack of entailments, though, the beliefs together seem to constitute a
system of beliefs that is intuitively quite coherent. So coherence can be earned by relations
weaker than entailment.

ii. The Propositional Relation: Inductive Relations

Many coherentists have required, in addition to logical consistency, probabilistic consistency. So


if one believes that p is 0.9 likely to be true, then one would be required to believe that not-p is
0.1 likely to be true. Here probability assignments appear in the content of what is believed.
Alternatively, a theory of probability might generate consistency constraints by imposing
constraints on the degrees of confidence with which we believe things. So take a person who
believes p, but is not fully confident that p is correct; she believes p to a degree of 0.9. Here 0.9
is not part of the content of what she believes; it measures her confidence in believing p.
Consistency might then require that she believe not-p to a degree of 0.1. In one of these two
ways, the axioms of probability might help set coherence constraints.

Besides being probabilistically consistent with one another, coherent beliefs gain in justification
from being inferred from one another in conformity with the canons of cogent inductive
reasoning. Foundationalists, at least moderate foundationalists, have just as much at stake in the
project of identifying these canons. It is common to identify distinct branches of inductive
reasoning, each with their own respective canons: for example, inference to the best explanation,
enumerative induction, and various forms of statistical reasoning. For present purposes, what is
crucial in all of this is that beliefs inferred from one another in conformity with the identified
canons (whatever the exact canons are) boost coherence, and therefore justification.

iii. The Propositional Relation: Explanatory Relations

To supplement the requirements of logical, and probabilistic, consistency, coherentists often


introduce explanatory relations. This allows them to concur that the system consisting in the
beliefs that Moe is wincing, Moe is squealing, and Moe is yelling that hurts coheres with the
belief that Moe is in pain. In addition, it allows us to disqualify the set consisting in my beliefs
that Joan is sitting, 2+2=4, and tomorrow is Wednesday on the grounds that these propositions do
not in any way explain one another.

There are two ways that a proposition can be involved in an explanatory relation: as being what
is explained, or as being what does the explaining. These are not exclusive. The fact there are
toxic fumes in the room is explained by the fact that the cap is off the bottle of toxic liquid. The
fact that there are toxic fumes in the room, in turn, explains the fact that I am feeling sick. So I
might believe that I am feeling sick, draw an explanatory inference and believe that there must
be toxic fumes in the air, and then from that belief draw a second explanatory inference and
believe that the cap must be off the bottle. In this case, that there are toxic fumes in the air serves
to both explain why I am sick and in turn serves as the explanatory basis for the cap being off the
bottle. Often what drives coherentists to think that a coherent set of beliefs must consist in more
than two beliefs is that the needed explanatory richness requires more than two beliefs.

Disagreement enters when coherentists say exactly what makes one thing a good explanation of
another. Among the determinants of good explanation are predictive power, simplicity, fit with
other claims that one is justified in believing, and fecundity in answering questions. The nature
and relative weight of these, and other, determinants is quite controversial. At this level of detail,
coherentists, even so-called explanationists who stress the central played by explanatory
considerations, frequently diverge.

Not all coherentists include explanatory relations among the determinants of coherence. See
Lehrer (1990) for example. Those that do include them usually give one of two kinds of accounts
for why believed propositions that do a good job of explaining one another increase coherence
and hence boost justification. One kind of account claims that when beliefs do this, they make
each other more likely to be true. On this kind of account, explanatory relations are construed as
ultimately being inductive probabilifying relations. On an alterative account, explanatory
relations are irreducible ingredients of coherence, ingredients that are simply obvious parts of
what contributes to coherence.

iv. The Psychological Realization Condition

It is not enough that the contents of a persons beliefs happen to cohere with one another.
Another condition is needed. In the cognizers mind, these beliefs must stand in some relation to
one another. This extra condition might be incorporated into an account of a belief system. Lets
consider another way of incorporating the condition. Suppose some coherentist elects to
individuate belief systems by the subject-matter of the belief contents. Such a coherentist might
then introduce a distinct psychological realization condition, one that figures into an account of
the coherence relation rather than into an account of a system of beliefs. If the beliefs in some
system are to cohere with one another, they must interact with one another for example, by
being inferred from one another.

On the inferential approach a belief coheres with the rest of the beliefs in some system of beliefs
only if it stands in one of two inferential relations to beliefs in that system of beliefs: it might be
inferred from one, or more, beliefs in the system; or, it might be a belief from which one, or
more, beliefs in the system have been inferred.
But inference is just one option. Arguably, another option would be to impose a counterfactual
condition. Roughly, this kind of condition says that a belief coheres with other beliefs in the
system to which it belongs only if the following counterfactual conditional claim is true: if the
rest of the system were markedly different, in some specified way, then the person would not
hold that belief.

4. Arguments for Coherentism


Lets now survey some of the main arguments for, and against, coherentism. This section reviews
four arguments for coherentism. The first attempts to show that coherence is sufficient for
justification. Three more attempt to show that it is necessary.

a. For Sufficiency: The Argument from Increased Probability

In An Analysis of Knowledge and Valuation, C.I. Lewis (1883-1964) introduced a case that has
been widely discussed. A number of witnesses report the same thing about some event for
example, that Nancy was at last nights party. However, the witnesses are unreliable about this
sort of thing. Moreover, their reports are made completely independently of one another in
other words, the report of any one witness was in no way influenced by the report of any of the
other witnesses. According to Lewis, the congruence of the reports establishes a high
probability of what they agree upon. (p. 246) The point is meant to generalize: whenever a
number of unreliable sources operate independently of one another, and they converge with the
same finding, this boosts the probability that that finding is correct. This is so regardless of
whether the sources are individual testifiers, various sensory modalities, or any combination of
sources. Items that individually are quite unreliable and would not justify belief, when taken
together under conditions of independent operation and convergence, produce justified beliefs.

This argument has been charged with several shortcomings. For one, it is not clear that the
argument, even if sound, establishes coherentism. The argument appears to rest on an inference
to the best explanation, one that can be construed along foundationalist lines. So, for each source,
S1 . . . Sn, I am justified in believing S1 reports p, S2 reports p . . . Sn reports p. According to
foundationalists, these beliefs are justified without being inferred from any other beliefs; they are
basic beliefs. Then, inferring to the best explanation, I come to believe p. This belief-that-p is a
non-basic belief, but since it rests on basic beliefs, the overall picture is a foundationalist one, not
a coherentist one.

Second, even on standard coherence views, it is not clear that the reports-that-p cohere with one
another. Logical coherence, both in the sense of logical consistency and in the sense of mutual
derivability, is in place; but the explanatory relations that coherentists so often emphasize are not.

Third, it is controversial whether the argument is cogent. One issue here concerns whether each
source, taken individually, provides justification for believing p. If each independently confers
some justification, then one of coherentisms rivals namely, a version of foundationalism which
says that coherence can boost overall justification, but cannot generate justification from scratch
can agree. On the other hand, if each source fails on its own to confer any justification
whatsoever, then the question remains: does this kind of case show that coherence can create
justification from scratch? If the argument is to establish that coherence is by itself sufficient to
generate justification, we need to take each individual source as, on its own, providing no
justification whatsoever for believing p. Recently Bayesian proofs have been offered to show
that the convergence of such sources does not increase the probability of p (see Huemer 1997
and Olson 2005). Their convergence would have been just as likely had p been false.

b. For Necessity: Only Beliefs can Justify Other Beliefs

The next coherentist argument traces to work by Wilfrid Sellars (1973) and Donald Davidson
(1986). Often this argument is put forth as an anti-foundationalist argument. However, if
successful, it establishes the stronger positive claim of necessity coherentism. According to this
argument, only beliefs are suited to justify beliefs. As Davidson puts it, nothing can count as a
reason for holding a belief except another belief (1986, p.126). Consider the obvious alternative
what justifies our empirical beliefs about the external world are perceptual states. But
perceptual states are either states that have propositions as their objects, or they dont. If they
have propositions as their objects, then we need to be aware of these propositions in the sense
that we need to believe these propositions in order for the initial belief to be justified. But it is
these further beliefs that are really doing the justifying. On the other hand, if they do not have
propositions as objects, then, no logical relations can hold between their objects and the
propositional contents of the beliefs that they are supposed to justify. That seems to leave
perceptual states standing in only causal relations to the relevant empirical beliefs. But, Davidson
claims, the mere fact that a belief is caused by a perceptual state implies nothing about whether
that belief is justified.

Foundationalists have replied in a number of ways. First, suppose perceptual states do not take
propositions as their objects. It is not clear why there needs to be a logical relation between the
objects of perceptual states, and the contents of the beliefs that they are supposed to justify. Non-
perceptual states can figure into statements of conditional probability, so that on their obtaining,
a given belief is likely to be true to some degree or other. Alternatively, they can bear
explanatory relations to the beliefs that they are alleged to justify. Second, suppose the relevant
perceptual states do take propositions as their objects. It is not at all obvious that one needs to be
aware of them for them to justify, though perhaps one does need to be aware of them if one is to
show that ones belief is justified. Here, the coherentist argument is often charged with conflating
the notion of a justified belief with the notion of being in a position to show that ones belief is
justified.

c. For Necessity: The Need for Justified Background Beliefs

Coherentists sometimes argue in the following way. First, they invoke a prosaic justified belief
about the external world say my present belief that there is a computer in front of me. Then
they claim that this belief is justified only if I am justified in believing that the lighting is normal,
that my eyes are functioning properly, that no tricks are being played on me, and so forth. For if I
am not justified in making these assumptions, then my belief that there is a computer in front of
me would not be justified. Generalizing, the claim is that our beliefs about the external world are
justified only if some set of justified background beliefs is in place.
This argument has also been challenged. The key claim--that my belief that there is a computer
in front of me is justified only if I am justified in believing these other things--is not obvious. A
young child, for example, might believe there is a computer in front of her, and this belief might
be justified, even though she is not yet justified in believing anything about the lighting, her
visual processes, and so forth. If this is correct, then the most the argument can show is that if
someone has a justified belief that there is a computer in front of them and if they believe that the
lighting is normal, that their eyes are functioning well, and so forth, then these latter beliefs had
better be justified. This, however, is consistent with foundationalism. Moreover, some
epistemologists argue that the psychological realization condition might not be met. For it is
implausible to think that I infer that there is a computer in front of me from one or more of my
beliefs about the lighting, my eyes, and absence of tricksters. Nor do I infer any of these latter
beliefs from my belief that there is a computer in front of me. Maybe this non-content
requirement will do instead: my computer belief is counterfactually dependent on my beliefs
about the lighting, my eyes, and so forth, so that if I did not have any of the latter beliefs, then I
would not have the computer belief either. This is far from obvious, though. Perhaps, in the
imagined counterfactual situation, my state is like the childs. So even a relation of
counterfactual dependence might not be needed.

d. For Necessity: The Need for Meta-Beliefs

There is another argument that begins from a prosaic justified belief about the external world.
Consider, again, my empirically justified belief that there is a computer in front of me. For this
belief to be justified, I must possess some reason for holding it. But to possess a reason is to
believe that reason. Since the reason presumably needs to be a good one, I must believe it in such
a way that my belief in that reason is a justified belief. This yields a second justified belief. This
second justified belief can then be subjected to the same argument, an argument that will yield
some third justified belief. And so on.

Foundationalists have charged that this argument is psychologically unrealistic. Surely, having a
justified belief that there is a computer in front of me does not require having an infinite number
of justified beliefs. Coherentists have a good reason to avoid being committed to this kind of
result: it is much more psychologically realistic to posit coherent systems of beliefs that are
finite. If this is right, the argument is best thought of as a reductio ad absurdum of one, or more,
of the claims that lead to the result either the claim that justified belief requires possessing a
reason, the claim that possessing a reason requires believing that reason, or the claim that
possessing a reason requires believing it with justification.

Moreover, this argument does not clearly support coherentism. Instead, it seems to support
infinitism. Plus, the demand that it makes is a demand for linear justification: my computer belief
relies for its justification on my having a second justified belief; in turn, this second justified
belief relies for its justification on my having some third justified belief. These dependency
relations are asymmetric one-way relations, the hallmark of linear justification, not coherence
justification.

5. Arguments Against Coherentism


This section takes up five arguments against coherentism. These are in addition to the circularity
and self-support charges that that were discussed earlier.

a. Against Sufficiency: The Input and Isolation Arguments

One argument against sufficiency coherentism says that it fails to recognize the indispensable
role that experience plays in justifying our beliefs about the external world. That sufficiency
coherentism gives no essential role to experience follows from the fact that the states that suffice
to justify our beliefs are, on this view, limited to other beliefs. That this is grounds for rejecting
sufficiency coherentism is spelled out in several different ways. One way appeals to a lack of
connection to the truth: since the view does not give any essential role to the central source of
input from the external world, namely experience, there is no reason to expect a coherent system
of beliefs to accurately reflect the external world. This line of attack is often referred to as the
isolation objection. Alternatively, an opponent of sufficiency coherentism might not appeal to
truth-conductivity. Instead, she might simply claim that it is implausible to deny that part of what
justifies my present belief that there is a computer in front of me is the nature of my present
visual and tactile experiences. So even if my experience is not reflective of the truth, perhaps
because I am a deceived brain-in-a-vat, my perceptual beliefs will be justified only if they
suitably fit with what my perceptual states are reporting.

Of course, proponents of necessity coherentism are free to impose other necessary conditions on
justified belief, conditions that can include things about experience. But what about proponents
of sufficiency coherentism? How can they respond? Lets look at three ways. The first is from
Laurence BonJour (1985, chapters 6 and 7). BonJour identifies a class of beliefs that he calls
cognitively spontaneous beliefs. Roughly, these are non-inferential beliefs that arise in us in a
non-voluntary way. A subset of these beliefs can be justified from within ones system of beliefs
by appeal to two other beliefs: the belief that these first-order beliefs occur spontaneously, plus
the belief that first-order spontaneous beliefs of a specific kind (a kind individuated by its
characteristic subject matter, or by its apparent mode of sensory production) tend to be true.
According to BonJour, invoking cognitively spontaneous beliefs in this way explains how
experience can make a difference to the justificatory status of our beliefs experiences do this
via their being reflected in a subset of our beliefs. BonJour contends that in addition a coherentist
must give an account of how experiences must make a difference to the justification of some of
our beliefs. Here, he introduces the Observation Requirement: roughly, any system of beliefs that
contains empirically justified beliefs must include the belief that a significant likelihood of truth
attaches to a reasonable variety of cognitively spontaneous beliefs.

Alternatively, Keith Lehrer (see chapter 6 of his 1990 book) calls on the fact that a humans
typical body of beliefs is going to include beliefs about the conditions under which she reliably
forms beliefs. Lehrer points out that this belief is either true or false. If it is true, then in tandem
with beliefs about the conditions under which one formed some beliefs, plus the beliefs
themselves, the truth of the beliefs, and their being justified, follows. On the other hand, if a
belief about the conditions under which one reliably forms beliefs is false, then the justification
for the relevant belief is defeated (this entails that one fails to know, though the belief still enjoys
what Lehrer calls "personal justification").
Third, a coherentist might challenge the assumption that experiences and beliefs are distinct. On
some views of perceptual states (for example, the view that Armstrong defends in chapter 10 of
his 1968 book), perceptual states, or at least a significant class of perceptual states, involve, and
entail, believing. On these views, when one of the relevant perceptual states supplies input from
the external world, ones corpus of beliefs is provided with input from the external world. The
viability of this response turns on the case for thinking that perceiving is believing.

b. Against Sufficiency: The Alternative Coherent Systems Argument

A second argument against sufficiency coherentism connects in some ways with the last
argument. According to this second argument, for each system of coherent beliefs, there are
multiple alternative systems alternative because they include beliefs with different, logically
incompatible, contents that are just as coherent. However, if there are plenty of highly, equally
coherent, but incompatible, systems, and if few of these systems do an adequate job of faithfully
representing reality, then coherentism is not a good indicator of truth. Since this line of reasoning
is readily knowable, beliefs that coherently fit together are not, at least by virtue of their
coherence alone, justified.

The exact number of alternative systems that are equally coherent depends on the exact details of
what constitutes coherence. But like most of the standard arguments for, and against,
coherentism, the soundness of this argument is not thought to turn on these details. Nor is it clear
that coherentists can reply by denying the view of epistemic justification invoked in the
argument. Even if one were to deny the externalist thesis which says that the mark of justified
beliefs is that they are likely to be true, in some objective non-epistemic sense of "likely,"
epistemic internalism might not provide refuge. For BonJour, Lehrer, and other internalists,
beliefs that are not likely, in the same externalist sense, to be true can be justified: for example,
my belief that there is a computer in front of me would be justified even if I were a lifelong
deceived brain-in-a-vat. But it is not clear that it is reasonable, by internalist lights, to hold a
coherent system of beliefs just because they are coherent, while it is reasonable to believe that
there are plenty of alternative equally coherent, but incompatible, belief systems. So, this
objection might go through whether one weds coherentism to epistemic externalism or
internalism.

A sufficiency coherentist might try to respond to this argument in the same way that she responds
to the input problem. She might claim, for example, that a sufficient bulk of a persons beliefs are
cognitively spontaneous beliefs. Since these beliefs are involuntarily acquired, they will
constrain the number, and nature, of alternative equally coherent systems that one could have.
Alternatively, a large bulk of our beliefs will be firmly in place if perceiving is believing.

c. Against Necessity: Feasibility Problems

Lets turn to some arguments against necessity coherentism. It is highly plausible that humans
have plenty of justified beliefs. So, if justification requires coherence, it must be psychologically
realistic to think that each of us has coherent systems of beliefs. How psychologically realistic is
this?
Again, the answer depends, in part, on the make up of the coherence relation. As we saw,
coherence at a minimum requires logical consistency. Christopher Cherniak (see Cherniak 1984)
considers using a truth-table to determine whether a system of 138 beliefs is logically consistent.
If one were so quick that one could check each line of the truth table for this long conjunction in
the time it takes a light ray to traverse the diameter of a proton, it would still take more than
twenty billion years to work through the entire table. Since 138 beliefs is hardly an inordinate
number of beliefs for a system to have, it appears that coherence cannot be checked for in any
humanly feasible way.

While this sort of consideration might pose a problem for a position that couples coherentism
with internalism (as BonJour and Lehrer do), coherentism itself does not require a person to
verify that it is logically consistent. It does not even require that a person be able to verify this. It
just requires that the system in fact be logically consistent. Still, there might be problems in the
neighborhood. One is that Cherniaks point might well imply that we do not form, or sustain, our
beliefs in virtue of their coherence, since any cognitive mechanism that could do this would need
to be much more powerful than any mechanisms we have. Second, it is highly plausible to think
that we are often in a position to show that our beliefs are justified; but Cherniaks point suggests
that if coherentism were right, this would often be beyond our abilities.

d. Against Necessity: The Preface Paradox

Another argument questions whether logical inconsistency, an obvious mark of incoherence,


really entails a lack of justification. Imagine an historian who has just completed her lifelong
book project. She has double and triple checked each claim that she makes in the book, and each
has checked out. For each of the claims she makes, c1, .. cn, she has a justified belief that it is
true: she has the justified belief that c1 is true, the justified belief that c2 is true, , and the
justified belief that cn is true. At the same time, she is fully aware of the fact that historians make
mistakes. In all likelihood, her book contains at least one mistake. For this reason, she is justified
in believing that at least one of the claims that she makes in her book is false. But this yields a set
of beliefs that is not logically consistent, since it includes the belief that c1 is true, the belief that
c2 is true, , the belief that cn is true, and the belief that at least one of c1 through cn is false.
Some epistemologists, for example, Foley 1992, have argued that the historian is justified in
believing this set of logically inconsistent claims. And, all of these beliefs remain justified even
if she knows they are logically inconsistent.

In response, the coherentist might appropriate any of a number of views on this Preface Paradox.
For example, John Pollock (1986) has suggested a simple reason for thinking that the historians
beliefs cannot be both logically inconsistent and justified. Since a set of inconsistent propositions
logically implies anything whatsoever, adding a widely accepted principle concerning
justification will yield the result that one can be justified in believing anything whatsoever. The
principle is the closure principle: roughly, it says that if one is justified in believing some set of
propositions and one is justified in believing that those propositions logically imply some other
proposition, then upon deducing this other proposition from the set that one starts from, one is
justified in believing that proposition.
A second set of cases involve beliefs that are logically inconsistent, although this is unknown to
the person who holds them. For example, while Frege had good reason to believe that the axioms
of arithmetic that he came up with were consistent, Russell showed that in fact they were not
consistent. It is quite plausible that Freges beliefs in each of the axioms were, though logically
inconsistent, nonetheless justified (see Kornblith 1989). BonJour (1989) responded to this case,
as well as the Preface Paradox, by agreeing that both Freges, and the historians beliefs, are
justified. He claimed that logical consistency is overrated; it is, in fact, not an essential
component of coherence.

e. Against Necessity: Counterexamples

There appear to be straightforward counterexamples to coherentism. Introspective beliefs


constitute an important class of such cases. On a broad interpretation of empirical that
encompasses sources of belief in addition to the sensory modalities (one that contrasts with the a
priori), introspective beliefs count as empirical. Consider, then, my introspective belief that I am
in pain, or my introspective belief that something looks red to me. These beliefs are not inferred
from any other beliefs I did not arrive at either of them by inference from premises. They are
not based on any other beliefs.

In response, Lehrer (1990, p. 89) has suggested that a coherentist might identify one, or more,
background beliefs, and claim that, though the introspective belief is not inferred from these
background belief, the introspective belief is justified because it coheres with the background
beliefs. For example, to handle the introspective belief that something looks red to me, Lehrer
points to the background belief that if I believe something looks red to me then, unless
something untoward is going on, the best explanation is that there is something that does look
red to me.

It is not clear that this response works. Let R be the proposition that something looks red to me.
Lehrers suggestion requires that coherence holds between (i) R and (ii) if I believe R, then R. It
is not clear, though, that coherence does hold between these. Though they are logically
consistent, neither entails the other; moreover, they need not be inductively related to one
another; nor is it clear that either explains the other.

6. Looking Ahead
Intense discussion of coherentism has been intermittent. Two recent defenses of the position,
Laurence BonJours 1985 The Structure of Empirical Knowledge and Keith Lehrers 1990
version of Knowledge, significantly advanced the issues and triggered substantial literatures,
which mostly attacked coherentism. But undoubtedly, work on coherentism has suffered from the
fact that so few philosophers are coherentists. Even BonJour, who did so much to reinvigorate
the discussion, has abandoned coherentism. See his 1999 paper for his renunciation. With the
exception of work being done by Bayesians, few epistemologists are presently working on
coherentism.

Epistemology would be better off if this were not so. For even if coherentism falls to some
objection, it would be nice if we had a better idea of exactly what range of positions fall.
Moreover, when it comes to the task of clarifying the nature of coherence, an appeal can be made
to many foundationalists. While there might not be much motivation to develop a position that
one rejects, there is this: many foundationalists want to incorporate considerations about
coherence. As we saw, they usually do this in one of two ways, either by allowing coherence to
boost the level of justification enjoyed by beliefs that are independently justified in some non-
coherentist fashion, or by stamping incoherent beliefs as unjustified. Defending these conditions
on justification requires clarifying the nature of coherence. So, it is not just coherentists that have
a stake in clarifying coherence.

Coherentism is the name given to a few philosophical theories in modern epistemology, the
study of knowledge. There are two distinct types of coherentism. One is the coherence theory of
truth; the other, the coherence theory of justification. The coherentist theory of justification
characterizes epistemic justification as a property of a belief only if that belief is a member of a
coherent set. What distinguishes coherentism from other theories of justification is that the set is
the primary bearer of justification.[1] As an epistemological theory, coherentism opposes
foundationalism and infinitism and attempts to offer a solution to the regress argument. In this
epistemological capacity, it is a theory about how belief can be justified.[citation needed] Coherentism
is a view about the structure of justification or knowledge. The coherentist's thesis is normally
formulated in terms of a denial of its contrary foundationalism. Coherentism thus claims,
minimally, that not all knowledge and justified belief rest ultimately on a foundation of
noninferential knowledge or justified belief.

This negative construal of coherentism occurs because of the prominence of the regress problem
in the history of epistemology, and the long-held assumption that only foundationalism provides
an adequate, non-skeptical solution to that problem. After responding to the regress problem by
denying foundationalism, coherentists normally characterize their view positively by replacing
the foundationalism metaphor of a building as a model for the structure of knowledge with
different metaphors, such as the metaphor which models our knowledge on a ship at sea whose
seaworthiness must be ensured by repairs to any part in need of it. Coherentists typically hold
that justification is solely a function of some relationship between beliefs, none of which are
privileged beliefs in the way maintained by foundationalists, with different varieties of
coherentism individuated by the specific relationship among beliefs identified as coherence.

Contents
1 Definition

2 History

3 The regress argument

o 3.1 Foundationalism's response


o 3.2 Coherentism's response

4 Difficulties for coherentism

5 See also

o 5.1 Theories of truth

6 References

7 External links

Definition
As a theory of truth, coherentism restricts true sentences to those that cohere with some specified
set of sentences. Someone's belief is true if and only if it is coherent with all or most of his or her
other beliefs. Usually, coherence is taken to imply something stronger than mere consistency.
Statements that are comprehensive and meet the requirements of Occam's razor are usually to be
preferred.[citation needed]

As an illustration of the principle, if people lived in a virtual reality universe, they could see
birds in the trees that aren't really there. Not only are the birds not really there, but the trees aren't
really there either. The people know that the bird and the tree are there, because it coheres with
the rest of their experiences in the virtual reality. Talking about coherence is an abstract way of
talking about the things that the people really know, without regard for whether they are in a
virtual reality or not.[citation needed]

Perhaps the best-known objection to a coherence theory of truth is Bertrand Russell's. Russell
maintained that since both a belief and its negation will, individually, cohere with at least one set
of beliefs, this means that contradictory beliefs can be shown to be true according to coherence
theory, and therefore that the theory cannot work. However, what most coherence theorists are
concerned with is not all possible beliefs, but the set of beliefs that people actually hold. The
main problem for a coherence theory of truth, then, is how to specify just this particular set,
given that the truth of which beliefs are actually held can only be determined by means of
coherence.

History
Coherentism was primarily outlined by Harold Henry Joachim in his book The Nature of Truth
(1906). More recently, several contemporary epistemologists have significantly contributed to
and defended the theory; primarily Laurence BonJour and Keith Lehrer.

The regress argument


Both coherence and foundationalist theories of justification attempt to answer the regress
argument, a fundamental problem in epistemology that goes as follows. Given some statement P,
it appears reasonable to ask for a justification for P. If that justification takes the form of another
statement, P', one can again reasonably ask for a justification for P', and so forth. There are three
possible outcomes to this questioning process:

1. the series is infinitely long, with every statement justified by some other statement.

2. the series forms a loop, so that each statement is ultimately involved in its own
justification.

3. the series terminates with certain statements having to be self-justifying.

An infinite series appears to offer little help, since it is basically impossible to check that each
justification is satisfactory. Relying on such a series quickly leads to skepticism.

A loop begs the question. Coherentism is sometimes characterised as accepting that the series
forms a loop, but although this would produce a form of coherentism, this is not what is
generally meant by the term.[2]

Foundationalism's response

One might conclude that there must be some statements that, for some reason, do not need
justification. This view is called foundationalism. For instance, rationalists such as Descartes and
Spinoza developed axiomatic systems that relied on statements that were taken to be self-
evident: "I think therefore I am" is the most famous example. Similarly, empiricists take
observations as providing the foundation for the series.

Foundationalism relies on the claim that it is not necessary to ask for justification of certain
propositions, or that they are self-justifying. If someone makes an observational statement, such
as "it is raining", it does seem reasonable to ask how they knowdid they look out the window?
Did someone else tell them? Did they just come in shaking their umbrella? Coherentism insists
that it is always reasonable to ask for a justification for any statement. Coherentism contends that
foundationalism provides an arbitrary spot to stop asking for justification and so that it does not
provide reasons to think that certain beliefs do not need justification.

Coherentism's response

Coherentism denies the soundness of the regression argument. The regression argument makes
the assumption that the justification for a proposition takes the form of another proposition: P"
justifies P', which in turn justifies P. For coherentism, justification is a holistic process.
Inferential justification for the belief that P is nonlinear. This means that P" and P' are not
epistemically prior to P. Rather, the beliefs that P", P', and P work together to achieve epistemic
justification. Catherine Elgin has expressed the same point differently, arguing that beliefs must
be "mutually consistent, cotenable, and supportive. That is, the components must be reasonable
in light of one another. Since both cotenability and supportiveness are matters of degree,
coherence is too."[3] Usually the system of belief is taken to be the complete set of beliefs of the
individual or group, that is, their theory of the world.

It is necessary for coherentism to explain in some detail what it means for a system to be
coherent. At the least, coherence must include logical consistency. It also usually requires some
degree of integration of the various components of the system. A system that contains more than
one unrelated explanation of the same phenomenon is not as coherent as one that uses only one
explanation, all other things being equal. Conversely, a theory that explains divergent phenomena
using unrelated explanations is not as coherent as one that uses only one explanation for those
divergent phenomena. These requirements are variations on Occams razor. The same points can
be made more formally using Bayesian statistics. Finally, the greater the number of phenomena
explained by the system, the greater its coherence.

Difficulties for coherentism


The main criticism facing coherentism, the isolation objection, is probably simplest to state from
the point of view of someone who holds to the correspondence theory of truth. This states that
there is no obvious way in which a coherent system relates to anything that might exist outside of
it. So, it may be possible to construct a coherent theory of the world, which does not correspond
to what actually occurs in the world. In other words, it appears to be entirely possible to develop
a system that is entirely coherent and yet entirely untrue.

It is surprisingly difficult to even state the problem from the point of view of a coherentist,
because the phrase correspond to reality has a different meaning in a coherentist system.[citation
needed]
For a coherentist, reality is exactly the entire coherent system. It is simply not possible for a
coherent theory not to correspond to reality, if reality is the very same thing as the entire coherent
system. However, coherentists need to account for propositions which report observations, such
as: "I believe it is raining because I looked out of the window and saw it was raining".

Put another way, coherentists might reply to the critic that any substantial system that was not
true would by definition contain some contradictions, and so be incoherent.

This should become clear by looking at the differences between a coherentist and
correspondence account of a scientific advance. Newtonian mechanics was shown to be
inconsistent with certain experiments, notably the Michelson-Morley experiment. The theory
used by physicists was thereafter changed from Newtonian to relativistic mechanics.

One who held to a correspondence theory might say that there was an apparent lack of
correspondence between the model (physics) and reality, and that the model was altered in order
that it correspond to the observed facts.

A coherentist account might claim that before the Michelson-Morley experiment, physics formed
a coherent theory. But then the experiment was performed. These experimental results form a
part of the account, yet the results were inconsistent with the expectations of the accepted theory.
Thus the account was shown to be less coherent. This inconsistency was resolved by the
development of relativistic mechanics. In this case a coherentist would need to explain how
special relativity is more coherent than both Newtonian mechanics and the Lorentz ether theory,
which explanation would lead us on from simple inconsistency.

Any lack of correspondence of the theory with reality may eventually lead to a lack of coherence
within the theory, and this leads to a modification of the theory to restore its coherence. There
would be little or no practical difference between a coherentist account and a correspondence
account of theory change.

Another problem coherentism has to face is the plurality objection. There is nothing within the
definition of coherence which makes it impossible for two entirely different sets of beliefs to be
internally coherent. Thus there might be several such sets. But if one supposesin line with the
principle of non-contradictionthat there can only be one complete set of truths, coherentism
must provide a way to choose between these competing sets.

A number of philosophers have raised concerns over the link between intuitive notions of
coherence that form the foundation of epistemic forms of coherentism and some formal results in
Bayesian probability. This is an issue raised by Luc Bovens and Stephen Hartmann in the form
of 'impossibility' results,[4] and by Erik J. Olsson.[5] Attempts have been made to construct a
theoretical account of the coherentist intuition.

Alternate title: coherence theory of truth

coherentism, Theory of truth according to which a belief is true just in case, or to the extent that,
it coheres with a system of other beliefs. Philosophers have differed over the relevant sense of
cohere, though most agree that it must be stronger than mere consistency. Among rival theories
of truth, perhaps the oldest is the correspondence theory, which holds that the truth of a belief
consists in its correspondence with independently existing facts. In epistemology, coherentism
contrasts with foundationalism, which asserts that ordinary beliefs are justified if they are
inferrable from a set of basic beliefs that are justified immediately or directly. Coherentism often
has been combined with the idealist doctrine that reality consists of, or is knowable only through,
ideas or judgments (see idealism).
Coherentist Theories of Epistemic
Justification
First published Tue Nov 11, 2003; substantive revision Thu Nov 15, 2012

According to the coherence theory of justification, also known as coherentism, a belief or set of
beliefs is justified, or justifiably held, just in case the belief coheres with a set of beliefs, the set
forms a coherent system or some variation on these themes. The coherence theory of justification
should be distinguished from the coherence theory of truth. The former is a theory of what it
means for a belief or a set of beliefs to be justified, or for a subject to be justified in holding the
belief or set of beliefs. The latter is a theory of what it means for a belief or proposition to be
true. Modern coherence theorists, in contrast to some earlier writers in the British idealist
tradition, typically subscribe to a coherence theory of justification without advocating a
coherence theory of truth. Rather, they either favor a correspondence theory of truth or take the
notion of truth for granted, at least for the purposes of their epistemological investigations. This
does not prevent many authors from claiming that coherence justification is an indication or
criterion of truth.

1. Coherentism Versus Foundationalism

2. The Regress Problem

3. Traditional Accounts of Coherence

4. Other Accounts of Coherence

5. Justification by Coherence from Scratch

6. Probabilistic Measures of Coherence

7. Truth Conduciveness: the Analysis Debate

8. Impossibility Results

9. Conclusions

Bibliography

Academic Tools

Other Internet Resources

Related Entries
1. Coherentism Versus Foundationalism
A central problem in epistemology is when we are justified in holding a proposition to be true.
This is a problem because it is not at all evident how epistemic justification should be
understood, and classical accounts of that notion have turned out to be severely problematic.
Descartes thought that a person is justified in holding something to be true just in case the
proposition in question can be derived from impeccable first principles characterized by their
presenting themselves as being self-evident to the subject in question. But, as is often argued,
little of what we take ourselves to justifiably believe satisfies these austere conditions: many of
our apparently justified beliefs, it is commonly thought, are neither based on self-evident truths
nor derivable in a strict logical sense from other things we believe in. Thus, the rationalist picture
of justification faces severe skeptical challenges. Similar problems hound empiricist attempts to
ground all our knowledge in the allegedly indubitable data of the senses. Depending on how they
are understood, sense data are either not indubitable or else not informative enough to justify a
sufficient portion of our purported knowledge. The exact characterization of foundationalism is a
somewhat contentious issue. There is another form of foundationalism according to which some
beliefs have some non-doxastic source of epistemic support that requires no support of its own.
This support can be defeasible and it can require supplementation to be strong enough for
knowledge. This sort of non-doxastic support would terminate the regress of justification. To do
so it may not have to appeal to self-evidence, indubitability or certainty. Such foundationalist
views vary on the source of the non-doxastic support, how strong the support is on its own, and
what role in justification coherence plays, if any. Some critics of this position have questioned
the intelligibility of the non-doxastic support relation. Thus, Davidson (1986) complains that
advocates have been unable to explain the relation between experience and belief that allows the
first to justify the second. This is an on-going debate the detailed coverage of which is outside
the scope of the present article.

The difficulties pertaining to both rationalism and empiricism have led many epistemologists to
think that there must be something fundamentally wrong with the way in which the debate has
been framed, prompting their rejection of the foundationalist justificatory structure underlying
rationalism and empiricism alike. Rather than conceiving the structure of our knowledge on the
model of Euclidean geometry, with its basic axioms and derived theorems, these epistemologists
favor a holistic picture of justification which does not distinguish between basic or foundational
and non-basic or derived beliefs, treating rather all our beliefs as equal members of a web of
belief (Quine and Ullian, 1970). Our purported knowledge, on this view, is more like a raft,
which may have to be rebuilt on the open sea, to use Neurath's famous metaphor, than like a
pyramid standing on its apex (Neurath 1983/1932, Sosa 1980).

Of course the mere rejection of foundationalism is not itself an alternative theory because it
leaves us with no positive account of justification. A more substantial contrasting proposal is that
what justifies our beliefs is ultimately the way in which they hang together or dovetail so as to
produce a coherent set. As Davidson puts it, [w]hat distinguishes a coherence theory is simply
the claim that nothing can count as a reason for a belief except another belief (Davidson, 1986).
The fact that our beliefs cohere can establish their truth, even though each individual belief may
lack justification entirely if considered in splendid isolation, or so it is thought. Following C. I.
Lewis (1946), some proponents think of this situation as analogous to how agreeing testimonies
in court can lead to a verdict although each testimony by itself would be insufficient for that
purpose.

There is an obvious objection that any coherence theory of justification or knowledge must
immediately face. It is called the isolation objection: how can the mere fact that a system is
coherent, if the latter is understood as a purely system-internal matter, provide any guidance
whatsoever to truth and reality? Since the theory does not assign any essential role to experience,
there is little reason to think that a coherent system of belief will accurately reflect the external
world. A variation on this theme is presented by the equally notorious alternative systems
objection. For each coherent system of beliefs there exist, conceivably, other systems that are
equally coherent yet incompatible with the first system. If coherence is sufficient for
justification, then all these incompatible systems will be justified. But this observation, of course,
thoroughly undermines any claim suggesting that coherence is indicative of truth.

As we shall see, most, if not all, influential coherence theorists try to avoid these traditional
objections by assigning some beliefs that are close to experience a special role, whether they are
called supposed facts asserted (Lewis, 1946), truth-candidates (Rescher, 1973), cognitively
spontaneous beliefs (BonJour, 1985) or something else. Depending on how this special role is
construed, these theories may be more fruitfully classified as versions of weak foundationalism
than as pure coherence theories. An advocate of weak foundationalism typically holds that while
coherence is incapable of justifying beliefs from scratch, it can provide justification for beliefs
that already have some initial, perhaps miniscule, degree of warrant, e.g., for observational
beliefs.

A fair number of distinguished contemporary philosophers have declared that they advocate a
coherence theory of justification. Apart from this superficial fact, these theories often address
some rather diverse issues loosely united by the fact that they in one way or the other take a
holistic approach to the justification of beliefs. Here are some of the problems and questions that
have prompted coherentist inquiry (cf. Bender, 1989):

The regress problem

How can we gain knowledge given that our information sources (senses, testimony etc)
are not reliable?

How can we know anything at all given that we do not even know whether our own
beliefs or memories are reliable?

Given a set of beliefs and a new piece of information (typically an observation), when is
a person justified in accepting that information?

What should a person believe if confronted with a possibly inconsistent set of data?
The fact that these separate, though related, issues are sometimes discussed in one swoop
presents a challenge to the reader of the relevant literature.

To get a firmer grasp of the coherence theory and the way in which it is invoked, it is helpful to
introduce it, following tradition, as a response to the regress problem. This will also serve to
illustrate some challenges that a coherence theory faces. We will then turn to the concept of
coherence itself as that concept is traditionally conceived. Unfortunately, not all prominent
authors associated with the coherence theory use the term coherence in this traditional sense, and
the section that follows is devoted to such non-standard coherence theories. The arguably most
systematic and prolific discussion of the coherence theory of justification has focused on the
relationship between coherence and probability. The rest of the article will be devoted to this
development, which took off in the mid-1990s inspired by seminal work by C. I. Lewis (1946)
and which has given us precise and sophisticated definitions of coherence as well as detailed
studies of the relationship between coherence and truth (probability), culminating in some
potentially disturbing impossibility results that shed doubt on the possibility of defining
coherence in a way that makes it indicative of truth. What these results entail, more precisely,
and how the worries they raise can be addressed will be the topic of our final discussion.

2. The Regress Problem


On the traditional justified true belief account of knowledge, a person cannot be said to know
that a proposition p is true without having good reasons for believing that p is true. If Lucy
knows that she will pass tomorrow's exam, she must have good reasons for thinking that this is
so. Consider now Lucy's reasons. They will presumably consist of other beliefs she has, e.g.,
beliefs about how well she did earlier, about how well she has prepared, and so on. For Lucy to
know that she will pass the exam, these other beliefs, upon which the first belief rests, must also
be things that Lucy knows. Knowledge, after all, cannot be based on something less than
knowledge, i.e., on ignorance (cf. Rescher 1979, 76). Since the reasons are themselves things
that Lucy knows, those reasons must in turn be based on reasons, and so on. Thus, any
knowledge claim requires a never-ending chain, or regress, of reasons for reasons. This seems
strange, or even impossible, because it involves reference to an infinite number of beliefs. But
most of us think that knowledge is possible.

What is the coherentist's response to the regress? The coherentist can be understood as proposing
that nothing prevents the regress from proceeding in a circle. Thus, A can be a reason for B
which is a reason for C which is a reason for A. If this is acceptable, then what we have is a chain
of reasons that is never-ending but which does not involve an infinite number of beliefs. It is
never-ending in the sense that for each belief in the chain there is a reason for that belief also in
the chain. Yet there is an immediate problem with this response due to the fact that justificatory
circles are usually thought to be vicious ones. If someone claims C and is asked why she believes
it, she may reply that her reason is B. If asked why she believes B, she may assert A. But if
prompted to justify her belief in A, she is not allowed to refer back to C which in the present
justificatory context is still in doubt. If she did justify A in terms of C nonetheless, her move
would lack any justificatory force whatsoever.
The coherentist may respond by denying that she ever intended to suggest that circular reasoning
is a legitimate dialectical strategy. What she objects to is rather the assumption that justification
should at all proceed in a linear fashion whereby reasons are given for reasons, and so on. This
assumption of linearity presupposes that what is, in a primary sense, justified are individual
beliefs. This, says the coherentist, is simply wrong: it is not individual beliefs that are primarily
justified, but entire belief systems. Particular beliefs can also be justified but only in a secondary
or derived sense, if they form part of a justified belief system. This is a coherence approach
because what makes a belief system justified, on this view, is precisely its coherence. A belief
system is justified if it is coherent to a sufficiently high degree. This, in essence, is Laurence
BonJour's 1985 solution to the regress problem.

This looks much more promising than the circularity theory. If epistemic justification is holistic
in this sense, then a central assumption behind the regress is indeed false, and so the regress
never gets started. Even so, this holistic approach raises many new questions to which the
coherentist will need to respond. First of all, we need to get clearer on what the concept of
coherence involves as that concept is applied to a belief system. This is the topic of the next
section. Second, the proposal that a singular belief is justified merely in virtue of being a member
of a justified totality can be questioned because, plausibly, a belief can be a member of a
sufficiently coherent system without in any way adding to the coherence of that system. Surely, a
belief will have to contribute to the coherence of the system in order to become justified by that
system. A particular belief needs, in other words, to cohere with the system of which it is a
member if that belief is to be considered justified. We will turn to this issue in section 4, in
connection with Keith Lehrer's epistemological work. Finally, we have seen that most coherence
theories assign a special role to some beliefs that are close to experience in order to avoid the
isolation and alternative systems objections. This fact raises the question of what status those
special beliefs have. Do they have to have some credibility in themselves or can they be totally
lacking therein? A particularly clear debate on this topic is the Lewis-BonJour controversy over
the possibility of justification by coherence from scratch, which we will examine more closely in
section 5.

3. Traditional Accounts of Coherence


By a traditional account of coherence we will mean one which construes coherence as a relation
of mutual support, consistency or agreement among given data (propositions, beliefs, memories,
testimonies etc.). Early characterizations were given by, among others, Brand Blanshard (1939)
and A. C. Ewing (1934). According to Ewing, a coherent set is characterized partly by
consistency and partly by the property that every belief in the set follows logically from the
others taken together. Thus, a set such as {A1, A2, A1&A2}, if consistent, is highly coherent on this
view because each element follows by logical deduction from the rest in concert.

While Ewing's definition is admirably precise, it defines coherence too narrowly. Few sets that
occur naturally in everyday life satisfy the austere second part of his definition: the requirement
that each element follow logically from the rest when combined. Consider, for instance, the set
consisting of propositions A, B and C, where
A = John was at the crime scene at the time of the robbery
B = John owns a gun of the type used by the robber
C = John deposited a large sum of money in his bank account the next day

This set is intuitively coherent, and yet it fails to satisfy Ewing's second condition. The
proposition A, for instance, does not follow logically from B and C taken together: that John
owns a gun of the relevant type and deposited money in his bank the day after does not logically
imply him being at the crime scene at the time of the crime. Similarly, neither B nor C follows
from the rests of the propositions in the set by logic alone.

C. I. Lewis's definition of coherence, or congruence to use his term, can be seen as a


refinement and improvement of Ewing's basic idea. As Lewis defines the term, a set of
supposed facts asserted is coherent (congruent) just in case every element in the set is
supported by all the other elements taken together, whereby support is understood not in
logical terms but in a weak probabilistic sense. In other words, P supports Q if and only if the
probability of Q is raised on the assumption that P is true. As is readily appreciated, Lewis's
definition is less restrictive than Ewing's: more sets will turn out to be coherent on the former
than on the latter. (There are some uninteresting limiting cases for which this is not true. For
instance, a set of tautologies will be coherent in Ewing's but not in Lewis's sense.)

Let us return to the example with John. The proposition A, while not logically entailed by B and
C, is under normal circumstances nevertheless supported by those propositions taken together. If
we assume that John owns the relevant type of gun and deposited a large sum the next day, then
this should raise the probability that John did it and thereby also raise the probability that he was
at the crime scene when the robbery took place. Similarly, one could hold that each of B and C is
supported, in the weak probabilistic sense, by the other elements of the set. If so, this set is not
only coherent in an intuitive sense but also coherent according to Lewis's definition. Against
Lewis's proposal one could hold that it seems arbitrary to focus merely on the support single
elements of a set receive from the rest of the set (cf. Bovens and Olsson 2000). Why not consider
the support any subset, not just singletons, receives from the rest?

Another influential proposal concerning how to define coherence originates from Laurence
BonJour (1985), whose account is considerably more complex than earlier suggestions. Where
Ewing and Lewis proposed to define coherence in terms of one single conceptlogical
consequence and probability, respectivelyBonJour thinks that coherence is a concept with a
multitude of different aspects corresponding to the following coherence criteria (9799):

1. A system of beliefs is coherent only if it is logically consistent.

2. A system of beliefs is coherent in proportion to its degree of probabilistic consistency.

3. 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.
4. 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.

5. The coherence of a system of beliefs is decreased in proportion to the presence of


unexplained anomalies in the believed content of the system.

A difficulty pertaining to theories of coherence that construe coherence as a multidimensional


concept is to specify how the different dimensions are to be amalgamated so as to produce an
overall coherence judgment. It could well happen that one system S is more coherent than
another system T in one respect, whereas T is more coherent than S in another. Perhaps S
contains more inferential connections than T, but T is less anomalous than S. If so, which system
is more coherent in an overall sense? Bonjour's theory is largely silent on this point.

BonJour's account also raises another general issue. The third criterion stipulates that the degree
of coherence increases with the number of inferential connections between different parts of the
system. Now as a system grows larger the probability that there will be relatively many
inferentially connected beliefs is increased simply because there are more possible connections
to be made. Hence, one could expect there to be a positive correlation between the size of a
system and the number of inferential connection between the beliefs contained in the system.
BonJour's third criterion, taken at face value, entails therefore that a bigger system will generally
have a higher degree of coherence due to its sheer size. But this is at least not obviously correct.
A possible modified coherence criterion could state that what is correlated with higher coherence
is not the number of inferential connections but rather the inferential density of the system, where
the latter is obtained by dividing the number of inferential connections by the number of beliefs
in the system.

4. Other Accounts of Coherence


We will return, in section 6, to the problem of defining the traditional concept of coherence while
addressing some of the concerns that we have raised, e.g., concerning the relationship between
coherence and system size. The point of departure for the present discussion, however, is the
observation that several prominent self-proclaimed coherentists construe the central concept, and
to some extent also its role in philosophical inquiry, in ways that depart somewhat from the
traditional view. Among them we find Nicolas Rescher, Keith Lehrer and Paul Thagard.

Central in Rescher's account, as laid out in Rescher (1973), his most influential book on the
subject, is the notion of a truth-candidate. A proposition is a truth-candidate if it is potentially
true, so that there is something that speaks in its favor. Rescher's truth-candidates are obviously
related to Lewis's supposed facts asserted. In both cases, the propositions of interest are prima
facie rather than bona fide truths. Although Rescher's 1973 book is entitled A Coherence Theory
of Truth, the purpose of Rescher's investigation is not to investigate the possibility of defining
truth in terms of coherence but to find a truth criterion, which he understands to be a systematic
procedure for selecting from a set of conflicting and even contradictory truth-candidates those
elements which it is rational to accept as bona fide truths. His solution amounts to first
identifying the maximal consistent subsets of the original set, i.e., the subsets that are consistent
but would become inconsistent if extended by further elements of the original set, and then
choosing the most plausible among these subsets. Plausibility is spelled out in a way that
reveals no obvious relation to the traditional concept of coherence. While the traditional concept
of coherence plays a role in the philosophical underpinning of Rescher's theory, it does not figure
essentially in the final product. In a later book, Rescher develops a more traditional system-
theoretic view on coherence (Rescher 1979).

Keith Lehrer employs the concept of coherence in his definition of justification, which in turn is
a chief ingredient in his complex post-Gettier definition of knowledge. According to Lehrer, a
person is justified in accepting a proposition just in case that proposition coheres with the
relevant part of her cognitive system. This is the relational concept of coherence alluded to
earlier. In Lehrer (1990), the relevant part is the acceptance system of the person, consisting of
reports to the effect that the subject accepts this and that. Thus, S accepts that A would initially
be in S's acceptance system, but not A itself. In later works, Lehrer has emphasized the
importance of coherence with a more complex cognitive entity which he calls the evaluation
system (e.g., Lehrer 2000 and 2003).

The starting point of Lehrer's account of coherence is the fact that we can think of all sorts of
objections an imaginative critic may raise to what a person accepts. These objections might be
directly incompatible with what that person accepts or they might threaten to undermine her
reliability in making assessments of the kind in question. For instance, a critic might object to her
claim that she sees a tree by suggesting that she is merely hallucinating. That would be an
example of the first sort of objection. An example of the second sort would be a case in which
the critic replies that the person cannot tell whether she is hallucinating or not. Coherence, and
(personal) justification, results when all objections have been met.

Lehrer's concept of coherence does not seem to have much in common with the traditional
concept of mutual support. If one takes it as essential that such a theory make use of a concept of
systematic or global coherence, then Lehrer's theory is not a coherence theory in the traditional
sense because, in Lehrer's view, [c]oherence is not a global feature of the system (1997, 31),
nor does it depend on global features of the system (31). A critic may wonder what reasons there
are for calling the relation of meeting objections to a given claim relative to an evaluation system
a relation of coherence. Lehrer's answer seems to be that it is a relation of fitting together with,
rather than, say, a relation of being inferable from: [i]f it is more reasonable for me to accept
one of [several] conflicting claims than the other on the basis of my acceptance system, then that
claim fits better or coheres better with my acceptance system (116), and so [a] belief may be
completely justified for a person because of some relation of the belief to a system to which it
belongs, the way it coheres with the system, just as a nose may be beautiful because of some
relation of the nose to a face, the way it fits with the face (88). Olsson (1999) has objected to
this view by pointing out that it is difficult to understand what it means for a belief to fit into a
system unless the former does so in virtue of adding to the global coherence of the latter.

Paul Thagard's theory is clearly influenced by the traditional concept of coherence but the
specific way in which the theory is developed gives it a somewhat non-traditional flavor, in
particular considering its strong emphasis on explanatory relations between beliefs. Like
Rescher, Thagard takes the fundamental problem to be which elements of a given set of typically
conflicting claims that have the status of prima facie truths to single out as acceptable. However,
where Rescher proposes to base the choice of acceptable truths on considerations of plausibility,
Thagard suggests the use of explanatory coherence for that purpose.

According to Thagard, prima facie truths can cohere (fit together) or incohere (resist fitting
together). The first type of relation includes relations of explanation and deduction, whereas the
second type includes various types of incompatibility, such as logical inconsistency. If two
propositions cohere, this gives rise to a positive constraint. If they incohere, the result is a
negative constraint. A positive constraint between two propositions can be satisfied either by
accepting both or by rejecting both. By contrast, satisfying a negative constraint means accepting
one proposition while rejecting the other. A coherence problem, as Thagard sees it, is one of
dividing the initial set of propositions into those that are accepted and those that are rejected in
such a way that most constraints are satisfied. Thagard presents several different computational
models for solving coherence problems, including a model based on neural networks.

How acceptability depends on coherence, more precisely, is codified in Thagard's principles of


explanatory coherence (Thagard, 2000):

Principle E1 (Symmetry)
Explanatory coherence is a symmetric relation, unlike, say, conditional probability. That
is, two propositions A and B cohere with each other equally.
Principle E2 (Explanation)

a. A hypothesis coheres with what it explains, which can either be evidence or


another hypothesis.

b. Hypotheses that together explain some other proposition cohere with each other.

c. The more hypotheses it takes to explain something, the lower the degree of
coherence.

Principle E3 (Analogy)
Similar hypotheses that explain similar pieces of evidence cohere.
Principle E4 (Data Priority)
Propositions that describe the results of observation have a degree of acceptability on
their own.
Principle E5 (Contradiction)
Contradictory propositions are incoherent with each other.
Principle E6 (Competition)
If A and B both explain a proposition, and if A and B are not explanatorily connected,
then A and B are incoherent with each other (A and B are explanatorily connected if one
explains the other or if together they explain something).
Principle E7 (Acceptance)
The acceptability of a proposition in a system of propositions depends on its coherence
with them.
Principle E4 (Data Priority) reveals that Thagard's theory is not a pure coherence theory, as it
gives some epistemic priority to observational beliefs, making it rather a form of weak
foundationalism. Moreover, Thagard's theory is based on binary coherence/incoherence relations,
i.e., relations holding between two propositions. His basic theory does not handle
incompatibilities that involve, in an essential way, more than two propositions. But
incompatibilities of that sort may very well arise, as exemplified by the three propositions Jane
is taller than Martha, Martha is taller than Karen and Karen is taller than Jane.
Nevertheless, Thagard reports the existence of computational methods for converting constraint
satisfaction problems whose constraints involve more than two elements into problems that
involve only binary constraints, concluding that his characterization of coherence suffices in
principle for dealing with more complex coherence problems with nonbinary constraints
(Thagard 2000, 19). Several other authors have defended coherence theories that emphasize the
importance of explanatory relations, e.g., William Lycan. See Lycan (1988) and, for a recent
statement, Lycan (2012).

5. Justification by Coherence from Scratch


The arguably most significant development of the coherence theory in recent years has been the
revival of C. I. Lewis's work and the research program he inspired by translating parts of the
coherence theory into the language of probability. This translation has made it possible to define
concepts and prove results with mathematical precision. It has also led to increased
transferability of concepts and results across fields, e.g., between coherence theory and
confirmation theory as it is studied in philosophy of science. As an effect, the study of coherence,
from being a fairly isolated and somewhat obscure part of epistemology, has developed into an
interdisciplinary research program with connections to philosophy of science, cognitive
psychology, artificial intelligence and philosophy of law. The rest of this article will be devoted
to this recent transformation of the subject.

To introduce Lewis's view on the role of coherence, consider the following famous passage on
relatively unreliable witnesses who independently tell the same story from his 1946 book:

For any one of these reports, taken singly, the extent to which it confirms what is reported may
be slight. And antecedently, the probability of what is reported may also be small. But
congruence of the reports establishes a high probability of what they agree upon, by principles of
probability determination which are familiar: on any other hypothesis than that of truth-telling,
this agreement is highly unlikely; the story any one false witness might tell being one out of so
very large a number of equally possible choices. (It is comparable to the improbability that
successive drawings of one marble out of a very large number will each result in the one white
marble in the lot.) And the one hypothesis which itself is congruent with this agreement becomes
thereby commensurably well established. (346)

While Lewis allows that individual reports need not be very credible considered in isolation for
coherence to have a positive effect, he is firmly committed to the view that their credibility must
not be nil. He writes, in his discussion of reports from memory, that [i]f there were no initial
presumption attaching to the mnemically presented then no extent of congruity with other
such items would give rise to any eventual credibility (357). In other words, if a belief system is
completely isolated from the world, then no justification will ensue from observing the
coherence of its elements. Thus, Lewis is advocating weak foundationalism rather than a pure
coherence theory.

In apparent agreement with Lewis, Laurence BonJour (1985, 148) writes: [a]s long as we are
confident that the reports of the various witnesses are genuinely independent of each other, a
high enough degree of coherence among them will eventually dictate the hypothesis of truth
telling as the only available explanation of their agreement. However, BonJour proceeds to
reject Lewis's point about the need for positive antecedent credibility: [w]hat Lewis does not
see, however, is that his own [witness] example shows quite convincingly that no antecedent
degree of warrant or credibility is required (148). BonJour is here apparently denouncing
Lewis's claim that coherence will not have any confidence boosting power unless the sources are
initially somewhat credible. BonJour is proposing that coherence can play this role even if there
is no antecedent degree of warrant, so long as the witnesses are delivering their reports
independently.

Several authors have objected to this claim of BonJour's, arguing that coherence does not have
any effect on the probability of the report contents if the independent reports lack individual
credibility. The first argument to that effect was given by Michael Huemer (1997). A more
general proof in the same vein is presented in Olsson (2002). What follows is a sketch of the
latter argument for the special case of two testimonies, couched essentially in the terminology of
Huemer (2011). In the following, all probabilities are assumed to lie strictly between 0 and 1.

Let E1 be the proposition that the first witness reports that A, and let E2 be the proposition that the
second witness reports that A. Consider the following conditions:

Conditional Independence
P(E2 | E1,A) = P(E2 | A)
P(E2 | E1,A) = P(E2 | A)
Nonfoundationalism
P(A | E1) = P(A)
P(A | E2) = P(A)
Coherence Justification
P(A | E1,E2) > P(A)

Conditional independence is intended to capture the idea that the testimonies are independent in
the sense that there is no direct influence between the testimonies. The probability of a testimony
is influenced only by the fact it reports on, meaning that once that fact is given, this screens off
any probabilistic influence between the individual testimonies making them irrelevant to each
other. Nonfoundationalism states that neither testimony confers any justification upon A by itself:
assuming merely that one single witness has testified that A has no effect on the probability of A.
Finally, Coherence Justification states that testimonies when combined do provide justification
for A.

The debate between Lewis and BonJour can be reconstructed as a debate over the joint
consistency of these three conditions. BonJour is claiming that the conditions are jointly
consistent, and that Coherence Justification follows from Conditional Independence even in the
context of Nonfoundationalism, whereas Lewis is rejecting these claims. Olsson (2002)
established that if the dispute is couched in these terms, then Lewis was provably right. From
Conditional Independence and Nonfoundationalism it follows that

P(A | E1,E2) = P(A)

so that combining collectively independent but individually useless testimonies, however


coherent, fails to give rise to anything useful. (As noted in Olsson, 2005, section 3.5, the matter
is somewhat complicated by the fact that Lewis adopted a notion of independence that is weaker
than Conditional Independence. Ironically, Lewis's weaker notion turns out to be compatible with
the combination of Nonfoundationalism and Coherence Justification.)

Nonfoundationalism should be contrasted with the following condition:

Weak Foundationalism
P(A | E1) > P(A)
P(A | E2) > P(A)

Weak Foundationalism does not by itself entail Coherence Justification: it is part of the folklore
of probability theory that even if two pieces of evidence each support a given conclusion, that
support may disappear, or even turn into disconfirmation, if they are combined. However, in the
context of Conditional Independence, Weak Foundationalism does imply Coherence
Justification. Indeed, the combined testimonies will, in this case, confer more support upon the
conclusion than the testimonies did individually. As recently confirmed by James Van Cleve
(2011), the conclusions supported by these considerations are that coherence can boost
justification or credibility that is already there without being able to create such justification or
credibility from scratch. The latter conclusion can be seen as a probabilistic vindication of the
traditional isolation objection, or a precise version thereof.

There are various ways to save the coherence theory from this probabilistic attack. The most
radical strategy would be to dismiss the probabilistic framework as altogether unsuitable for
coherentism. Independent reasons for this response can be found in Thagard's work (e.g.,
Thagard 2000 and 2005). A less radical approach would be to refrain from any blanket dismissal
of probability theory in this context but reject one of the premises of the troublesome proof. This
is the strategy recently taken by Huemer, who now considers his 1997 probabilistic refutation of
coherentism to be mistaken (Huemer 2011, 39, footnote 6). While he thinks that Coherentist
Justification correctly captures a minimal sense of coherentism, he reports dissatisfaction with
both Conditional Independence and Nonfoundationalism (his term for the latter is Strong
Nonfoundationalism). Huemer now thinks independence, in the intuitive sense, is better
captured by the condition P(E2 | E1, A) > P(E2 | E1, A). Moreover, he takes the condition P(A |
E1, E2) = P(A), or Weak Nonfoundationalism in his terminology, to be a more suitable
explication of nonfoundationalist intuitions than the condition P(A | E1) = P(A). Space does not
allow a more detailed examination of Huemer's arguments for these conditions. At any rate, he
goes on to show that they are jointly consistent with Coherentist Justification: there are
probability distributions satisfying all three conditions. Thus the immediate threat to coherentism
presented by the observed inconsistency of the three original conditions has been neutralized,
even though a critic might point out that the defense is weak since it has not been shown that
Coherence Justification follows from the two new conditions.

Whatever merits Huemer's new conditions might have, their standing in the literature is hardly
comparable to that of the original conditions. Conditional Independence, for instance, is an
extremely powerful and intuitive concept which has been put to fruitful use in many areas in
philosophy and computer science, the most spectacular example being the theory of Bayesian
networks (Pearl, 1985). Similarly, the Nonfoundationalist condition is still the most widely used
and many would say most naturalway of stating, in the language of probability theory, that a
testimony fails to support that which is testified. Thus, it would seem that coherentism is saved at
the price of disconnecting it from the way in which probability theory is standardly applied.
Roche (2010) criticizes Nonfoundationalism from another perspective. In his view, a close
reading of BonJour reveals that the latter requires only that the witness reports lack individual
credibility in the sense that P(A | Ei) = 0.5 and not in the sense of P(A | Ei) = P(A), which is the
condition we called Nonfoundationalism. Since the former does not entail the latter, coherentists,
to the extent that they follow BonJour, need not worry about the joint inconsistency of
Conditional Independence, Nonfoundationalism and Coherence Justification. Still, this account
of what it means to lack initial credibility is highly counterintuitive if taken as a general
characterization, and it may in the end be more charitable to interpret BonJour as not having
subscribed to it. For an elaboration of this point the reader is referred to Olsson (2005, 65),
footnote 4. In later works, BonJour has gradually retracted from his original coherentist position
(e.g., BonJour 1989 and 1999).

6. Probabilistic Measures of Coherence


We recall that Lewis's defined coherence, or congruence, not for any old set of proposition but
rather for a set of supposed facts asserted. One way to capture this idea is in terms of the notion
of a testimonial system introduced in Olsson (2005). A testimonial system S is a set {E1,A1,,
En,An} where Ei is a report to the effect that Ai is true. We will say that Ai is the content of report
Ei. The content of a testimonial system S = {E1,A1, , En,An} is the ordered set of report
contents A1,,An. By the degree of coherence C(S) of such a testimonial system we will mean
the degree of coherence of its content. Bovens and Hartmann (2003) proposed a similar
representation of supposed facts asserted in terms of ordered sets.

To illustrate these concepts, consider a case in which all witnesses report exactly the same thing,
e.g., that John was at the crime scene. That would be a paradigm case of a (highly) coherent set
of reports. Now contrast this situation with one in which only one witness reports this. That
would be a situation which would intuitively not qualify as coherent. Indeed, it does not even
seem meaningful to apply the concept of coherence to a case of just one report (except in the
trivial sense in which everything coheres with itself). Letting A be the proposition John was at
the crime scene, and E1,,En the corresponding reports, this intuitive difference can be
represented as the difference between two testimonial systems: S = {E1,A,, E2,A} and S =
{E1,A}. If, by contrast, the entities to which coherence applies are represented as simple
unstructured sets, the sets of testimonies in question would be given the same formal
representation in terms of the set having A as its sole member.
By a (probabilistic) coherence measure, as defined for ordered sets of propositions, we shall
mean any numerical measure C(A1,,An) defined solely in terms of the probability of A1,,An
(and their Boolean combinations) and standard arithmetical operations (Olsson, 2002). This
definition makes the degree of coherence of a set of witness reports a function of the probability
of the report contents (and their Boolean combinations). Huemer (2011, 45) refers to this
consequence as the Content Determination Thesis. We will return to the status of this thesis in
section 8, in connection with the recent impossibility results for coherence. A reasonable
constraint on any coherence measure is that the degree of coherence of an ordered set should be
independent of the particular way in which the content propositions are listed. Thus, C(A1,A2,
,An) = C(B1,B2, ,Bn) whenever B1,B2, ,Bn is a permutation of A1,A2, ,An. This is a
formal way of stating that all propositions in the relevant set should be treated as epistemic
equals. All measures that will be discussed below satisfy this condition.

Our starting point will be an attempt to identify the degree of coherence of a set with its joint
probability:

C0(A,B) = P(AB)

However, it is easily seen that this is not a plausible proposal. Consider the following two cases.
Case 1: Two witnesses point out the same person as the perpetrator, John, say. Case 2: One
witness states that John or James did it, and the other witness that John or Mary did it. Since the
joint probability is the same in both cases, equaling the probability that John did it, they yield the
same degree of coherence as measured by C0. And yet, the reports in the first case are more
coherent from a presystematic standpoint because the witnesses are in complete agreement.

One way of handling this example would be to define coherence as follows (Glass 2002, Olsson
2002):

P(AB)
C1(A,B) =
P(AB)

C1(A,B), which also takes on values between 0 and 1, measures how much of the total probability
mass assigned to either A or B falls into their intersection. The degree of coherence is 0 if and
only if P(AB) = 0, i.e., just in case A and B do not overlap at all, and it is 1 if and only if
P(AB) = P(AB), i.e., just in case A and B coincide. The measure is straightforwardly
generalizable:

P(A1An)
C1(A1,An) =
P(A1An)

This measure assigns the same coherence value, namely 1, to all cases of total agreement,
regardless of the number of witnesses that are involved. Against this it may be objected that
agreement among the many is more coherent than agreement among the few, an intuition that can
be accounted for by following alternative measure introduced by Tomoji Shogenji (1999):
P(A | B) P(AB)
C2(A,B) = =
P(A) P(A)P(B)

or, as Shogenji proposes to generalize it,

P(A1An)
C2(A1,,An) =
P(A1)P(An)

It is easy to see that this measure is sensitive, in the way we suggested, to the number of reports
in cases of total agreement: n agreeing reports correspond to a coherence value of 1/P(A)n1,
meaning that as n approaches infinity, so does the degree of coherence. Like the other measures,
C2(A,B) equals 0 if and only if A and B do not overlap. An alternative generalization of the
Shogenji measure is presented in Shupbach (2011). However, whatever its philosophical merits,
Schupbach's proposal is considerably more complex than Shogenji's original suggestion. Ken
Akiba (2000) raises a number of worries for the Shogenji measure but they seem to be predicated
on the assumption that the concept of coherence is interestingly applicable to unordered sets of
proposition, an assumption that we found reason to question above.

C1 and C2 can also be contrasted with regard to their sensitivity to the specificity of the
propositions involved. Consider two cases. The first case involves two witnesses both claiming
that John committed the crime. The second case involves two witnesses both making the weaker
disjunctive claim that John, Paul or Mary committed the crime. Which pair of witnesses are
delivering the more coherent set? One way to reason is as follows. Since both cases involve fully
agreeing testimonies, the degree of coherence should be the same. This is also the result we get if
we apply C1. But one could maintain instead that since the first two witnesses agree on
something more specifica particular individual's guiltthe degree of coherence should be
higher. This is what we get if we apply C2. In an attempt at reconciliation, Olsson (2002)
suggested that C1 and C2 may capture two different concepts of coherence. While C1 measures
the degree of agreement of a set, C2 is more plausible as a measure of how striking the agreement
is.

A further much discussed measure is that proposed in Fitelson (2003). It is based on the intuition
that the degree of coherence of a set E should be a quantitative, probabilistic generalization of
the (deductive) logical coherence of E (ibid., 194). Fitelson takes it to be a consequence of this
idea that a maximum (constant) degree of coherence is attained if the propositions in E are all
logically equivalent (and consistent). This is in accordance with C1 but not with C2, which as we
saw is sensitive to the specificity (prior probability) of the propositions involved. Fitelson, who
approached the subject from the standpoint of confirmation theory, proposed a complex
coherence measure based on Kemeny and Oppenheim's (1952) measure of factual support. A
further innovative idea is that Fitelson extends this measure to take into account support relations
holding between all subsets in the set E, whereas Lewis, we recall, only considered the support
relation holding between one element and the rest. The degree of coherence of a set, finally, is
defined as the mean support among the subsets of E. An alleged counterexample to this measure
can be found in Siebel (2004). The reader may wish to consult Bovens and Hartmann (2003) and
Douven and Meijs (2007) for further measures and for detailed critical surveys of the literature.
Douven and Meijs's own proposal is similar to Fitelson's in defining coherence in terms of
confirmation.

It is fair to say that coherence theorists have yet to reach anything like consensus on how best to
define coherence in probabilistic terms. Nevertheless, the debate so far has given rise to a much
more fine-grained understanding of what the options are and what consequences they have. What
is more, some quite surprising conclusions can be drawn even with this issue largely unresolved:
all we need to assume in order to prove that no coherence measure can be truth conducive, in a
sense to be explained, is that those measures respect the Content Determination Thesis.

7. Truth Conduciveness: the Analysis Debate


Peter Klein and Ted Warfield's 1994 paper in Analysis initiated a lively and instructive debate on
the relationship between coherence and probability (e.g., Klein and Warfield 1994 and 1996,
Merricks 1995, Shogenji 1999, Cross 1999, Akiba 2000, Olsson 2001, Fitelson 2003 and Siebel
2004). According to Klein and Warfield, just because one set of beliefs is more coherent than
another set, this does not mean that the first set is more likely to be true. On the contrary, a
higher degree of coherence can, so they claimed, be associated with a lower probability of the
whole set. The idea behind their reasoning is simple: We can often raise the coherence of an
informational set by adding more information that explains the information already in the set.
But as more genuinely new information is added, the probability that all the elements of the set
are true is correspondingly diminished. This, Klein and Warfield wrote, follows from the well-
known inverse relationship between probability and informational content. They concluded that
coherence is not truth conducive.

Much in the spirit of C. I. Lewis, Klein and Warfield illustrated their argument referring to a
detective story (the so-called Dunnit example). It turns out that this example is unnecessarily
complex and that the main point can be illustrated by reference to a simpler case (borrowed from
computer science where it is used to exemplify the concept of non-monotonic inference).
Suppose that you are told by one source, Jane, that Tweety is a bird and by another source, Carl,
that Tweety cannot fly. The resulting information set S = Tweety is a bird, Tweety cannot
fly is not particularly coherent from an intuitive standpoint. Nor is it coherent from the point of
view of Lewis's definition: assuming one of the items true decreases the probability of the other.
At this point, it would be reasonable to conjecture that either Jane or Carl is not telling the truth.
However, upon consulting a further source, Rick, we receive the information that Tweety is a
penguin. The new set S = Tweety is a bird, Tweety cannot fly, Tweety is a penguin is
surely more coherent than S. In explaining the previous anomaly, the information supplied by
Rick contributes to the explanatory coherence of the set.

The new enlarged set S is more coherent than the original smaller set S. And yet S, being less
informative, is more probable than S: the conjunction of all the propositions in S is more
probable than the conjunction of all the propositions in S. Hence, more coherence does not
necessarily imply higher likelihood of truth in the sense of higher joint probability. Klein and
Warfield seem to be right: coherence is not truth conducive.
But, as will soon be clear, this conclusion is premature. As a preliminary, let us state Klein and
Warfield's argument more formally using the following abbreviations:

A1 = Tweety is a bird.
A2 = Tweety cannot fly.
A3 = Tweety is a penguin.

The first information set S consists of A1 and A2. The second, more coherent set S contains, in
addition, A3. We let C denote the degree of coherence, intuitively understood. What we have then
is:

C(A1,A2) < C(A1,A2,A3).

As we saw, due to the greater informational content of the larger set, its probability is lower than
that of the smaller set:

P(A1,A2,A3) < P(A1,A2).

Yet behind this seemingly impeccable piece of reasoning lurks a serious difficulty. It has not
been taken into account that we are supposed to know also that Jane reports that Tweety is a
bird, that Carl reports that Tweety cannot fly and that Rick reports that Tweety is a penguin. Let:

E1 = Jane reports that Tweety is a bird


E2 = Carl reports that Tweety cannot fly
E3 = Rick reports that Tweety is a penguin

The well-known principle of total evidence now dictates that all relevant evidence should be
taken into consideration when computing probabilities. Since it cannot be excluded at the outset
that the evidence represented by E1E3 may be relevant to the probability of the information sets
S and S, the probability of the smaller set is not P(A1,A2) but rather P(A1,A2 | E1,E2). Similarly, the
probability of the larger set is not P(A1,A2,A3) but rather P(A1,A2,A3 | E1, E2, E3). Klein and
Warfield's reasoning fails because based on an incorrect understanding of the joint probability of
a set of reported propositions.

Bovens and Olsson (2002) raised the question whether, given this revised understanding of the
probability of a set of reported propositions, it would still follow that extended sets are no more
probable than the sets they extend. Referring to our Tweety example, would it still hold that

P(A1,A2,A3 | E1,E2,E3) < P(A1,A2 | E1,E2)?

Bovens and Olsson demonstrated that the answer to the general question is in the negative by
giving an example of a more coherent extended set that is also more probable, on the revised
understanding of what this means, than the original smaller set.

Let us say that a measure C of coherence is propositionally truth conducive if and only if the
following holds:
if C(A1,,An) > C(B1,,Bm), then P(A1An) > P(B1Bm).
One lesson emerging from the Analysis debate is that this way of construing truth conduciveness
should be replaced by a notion of truth conduciveness where the relevant probabilities takes all
relevant evidence into account, whatever that evidence may be (beliefs, testimonies etc.). For
example, a coherence measure C is doxastically truth conducive (for a subject S) if and only if:
if C(A1,,An) > C(B1,,Bm), then P(A1An | BelSA1,,BelSAn) > P(B1Bm | BelSB1,
,BelSBm),

where BelSA abbreviates S believes that A. In other words, a measure of coherence is


doxastically truth conducive just in case a more coherent set of believed propositions is jointly
more probable than a less coherent set of believed propositions. This the how we will understand
the probability (likelihood of truth) of a set in the following.

8. Impossibility Results
The recent impossibility results for coherence draw on all three debates summarized above: the
Lewis-BonJour controversy, the debate over probabilistic measures of coherence and also the
dispute in Analysis regarding truth conduciveness. Before we can discuss the results we need to
make one further observation. Given the conclusion of the Lewis-BonJour dispute, it is a
reasonable expectation that no coherence measure is truth conducive, in the relevant conditional
sense, unless it is assumed that the reports (beliefs, memories etc.) in question are individually
credible and collectively independent. But assuming this is not sufficient for coherence to stand a
reasonable chance of being truth conducive. We must also require that when we compare two
different sets of reports, we do so while keeping the degree of individual credibility fixed.
Otherwise we could have a situation in which one set of report contents is more coherent than
another set but still fails to give rise to a higher likelihood of truth simply because the reporters
delivering the propositions in the less coherent set are individually more reliable. Thus, truth
conduciveness must be understood in a ceteris paribus sense. The question of interest, then, is
whether more coherence implies a probability (given independence and individual credibility)
everything else being equal. We are now finally in a position to state the impossibility theorems.
What they show is that no measure of coherence is truth conducive even in a weak ceteris
paribus sense, under the favorable conditions of (conditional) independence and individual
credibility.

The first result of this nature was presented by Luc Bovens and Stephan Hartmann (2003). Their
definition of truth conduciveness deviates slightly from the standard account given above. As
they define it, a measure C is truth conducive if and only if, for all sets S and S, if S is at least as
coherent as S according to C, then S is at least as likely to be true as S ceteris paribus, given
independence and individual credibility. Very roughly, their proof has the following structure:
They show that there are sets S and S, each containing three propositions, such that which set is
more likely to be true will depend on the level at which the individual credibility (reliability) is
held fixed. Thus for lower degrees of reliability, one set, say S, will be more probable than the
other set, S; for higher degrees of reliability, the situation will be reversed. One can now find a
counterexample to the truth conduciveness of any measure C through a strategic choice of the
level at which the reliability is held fixed. Suppose for instance that, according to C, the set S is
more coherent than the set S. In order to construct a counterexample to C's truth conduciveness,
we set the reliability to a value for which S will be more probable than S. If, on the other hand,
C makes S more coherent than S, we fix the reliability to a level at which S will be the more
probable set. For the details, see Bovens and Hartmann (2003, section 1.4).

Olsson defines truth conduciveness in the standard fashion. His impossibility theorem is based
on the following alternative proof strategy (Olsson 2005, appendix B): Consider a situation of
two witnesses both reporting that A, represented by S = A, A. Take a measure C of coherence
that is informative with respect to S, in the sense that it does not assign the same degree of
coherence to S regardless of which probability assignment is used. Take two assignments P and
P of probabilities to the propositions in S that give rise to different coherence values. Olsson
shows that a counter example to the truth conduciveness of C can be constructed through a
strategic choice of the probability of reliability. If P makes S more coherent than does P
according to C, we fix the probability of reliability in such a way that S comes out as more
probable on P than on P. If, on the other hand, P makes S more coherent, then we choose a
value for the probability of reliability so that P makes S more probable. It follows that no
coherence measure is both truth conducive and informative.

There are some further subtle differences between the two results. First, Olsson's theorem is
proved against the backdrop of a dynamic model of reliability: the assessment of witness
reliability, which in this model is represented as a probability of reliability, may change as we
obtain more testimonies. Bovens and Hartmann's detailed proof assumes a non-dynamic model
of reliability, although they indicate that the result carries over to the dynamic case. Second,
there is a difference in the way the ceteris paribus condition is understood. Olsson fixes the
initial probability of reliability, but allows the prior probability of the report contents to vary.
Bovens and Hartmann fix not only the reliability but also the prior probability of the report
contents.

These impossibility results give rise to a thought-provoking paradox. How can it be that we trust
and rely on coherence reasoning, in everyday life and in science, when in fact coherence is not
truth conducive? Since the impossibility results were published a number of studies have been
dedicated to the resolution of this paradox. These studies can be divided into two camps.
Researchers in the first camp accept the conclusion that the impossibility results show that
coherence is not truth conducive. They add, however, that this does not prevent coherence from
being valuable and important in other ways. Researchers in the other camp do not accept the
conclusion that the impossibility results show that coherence is not truth conducive because they
think that at least one premise used in proving the results is doubtful.

Let us start with responses from the first camp. Franz Dietrich and Luca Moretti (2005) show
that coherence in the sense of the Olsson measure is linked to the practice of indirect
confirmation of scientific hypotheses. That measure turns out to be, in the terminology of Moretti
(2007), confirmation conducive. David H. Glass (2007) argues, similarly, that coherence can
provide the key to a precise account of inference to the best explanation, the main idea being to
use a coherence measure for ranking competing hypotheses in terms of their coherence with a
given piece of evidence. Furthermore, Olsson and Schubert (2007) observe that, while coherence
falls short of being truth conducive, it can still be reliability conducive, i.e., more coherence,
according to some measures, entails a higher probability that the sources are reliable, at least in a
paradigmatic case (cf. Schubert 2012a, 2011). Nevertheless, Schubert has recently proved an
impossibility theorem to the effect that no coherence measure is reliability conducive in general
(Schubert 2012b). For yet another example, Staffan Angere (2007, 2008) has argued, based on
computer simulations, that the fact that coherence fails to be truth conducive, in the above sense,
does not prevent it from being connected with truth in a weaker, defeasible sense. In fact, almost
all coherence measures that have an independent standing in the literature satisfy the condition
that most cases of higher coherence are also cases of higher probability, although they do so to
different degrees. Finally, it has been noted that coherence plays an important negative role in
our thinking. If our beliefs show signs of incoherence, this is often a good reason for
contemplating a revision. See chapter 10 in Olsson (2005) for an elaboration of this point.

As for the other approach to the impossibility results (questioning the premises used in their
derivation), we have already seen that Huemer (2007, 2011), in connection with the Lewis-
BonJour dispute, has expressed doubts regarding the standard way of formalizing independence
in terms of conditional probability. It should come as no surprise that he objects to the
impossibility results (ibid.) on the same grounds. In his 2011 article, Huemer even questions the
Content Determination Thesis, which plays a pivotal role in the derivation of the results, for
reasons that we have to leave aside here.

All these things can be consistently questioned. But the question is: at what cost? We have
already seen that there are strong systematic reasons for explicating independence in terms of
conditional independence. Furthermore, the Content Determination Thesis is deeply entrenched
in just about all work on coherence that takes agreeing witnesses to be the prototypical case.
Giving up Content Determination would mean purging the coherence theory of one of its clearest
and most distinctive pre-systematic intuitions: that coherence is a property at the level of report
contents. The worry is that coherentism is saved at the cost of robbing it of almost all its
significance, as Ewing put it almost a century ago in response to a similar worry (Ewing 1934,
246).

These concerns do not obviously carry over to another dialectical move: questioning the ceteris
paribus conditions employed in the impossibility results, i.e., the conditions that determine what
to hold fixed as the degree of coherence is varied. This line of criticism has been taken up by
several authors, including Douven and Meijs (2007), Schupbach (2008) and Huemer (2011), and
it may well be the internally least problematic strategy to explore for those who are inclined to
challenge the premises upon which the impossibility results are based. It should be borne in
mind, though, that the tendency to offer ever stronger ceteris paribus conditions may in the end
be self-defeating. As more things are held fixed, it becomes easier for a coherence measure to be
truth conducive. Hence, researchers pursuing this line of defense ultimately run the risk of
trivializing the debate by making coherence truth conducive by definition (cf. Schubert 2012b).

9. Conclusions
The coherence theory of justification represents an initially suggestive solution to some deeply
rooted problems of epistemology. Perhaps most significantly, it suggests a way of thinking about
knowledge and justification as arising in a web of belief. As such, it competes with, and could
potentially replace, the historically dominating, but increasingly disreputable, foundationalist
picture of knowledge as resting on a secure base of indubitable fact, as well as with other forms
of foundationalism such as the view that some beliefs enjoy non-doxastic support that requires
no support of its own. Unfortunately, coherence theorists have generally struggled to provide the
details necessary for their theory to advance beyond the metaphorical stage, something which has
not gone unnoticed by their critics. Following the seminal work of C. I. Lewis, contemporary
scholars have taken on that challenge with considerable success in terms of clarity and
established results, although a fair number of the latter are to the coherentist's disadvantage.
Some results support a weak foundationalist theory according to which coherence can boost
credibility that is already there, without creating it from scratch. However, on the face of it, the
impossibility results negatively affect this less radical form of coherence theory as well. It is
often observed that while it is relatively easy to put forward a convincing theory in the outline,
the ultimate test for any philosophical endeavor is whether the product will survive detailed
specification (the devil is in the details, and so on). What the recent developments in this area
have shown, if nothing else, is that this is very much true for the coherence theory of epistemic
justification.

The Coherence Theory of Truth


First published Tue Sep 3, 1996; substantive revision Wed Mar 27, 2013

A coherence theory of truth states that the truth of any (true) proposition consists in its coherence
with some specified set of propositions. The coherence theory differs from its principal
competitor, the correspondence theory of truth, in two essential respects. The competing theories
give conflicting accounts of the relation that propositions bear to their truth conditions. (In this
article, proposition is not used in any technical sense. It simply refers to the bearers of truth
values, whatever they may be.) According to one, the relation is coherence, according to the
other, it is correspondence. The two theories also give conflicting accounts of truth conditions.
According to the coherence theory, the truth conditions of propositions consist in other
propositions. The correspondence theory, in contrast, states that the truth conditions of
propositions are not (in general) propositions, but rather objective features of the world. (Even
the correspondence theorist holds that propositions about propositions have propositions as their
truth conditions.) Although the coherence and correspondence theories are fundamentally
opposed in this way, they both present (in contrast to deflationary theories of truth) a substantive
conception of truth. That is, unlike deflationary theories, the coherence and correspondence
theories both hold that truth is a property of propositions that can be analysed in terms of the
sorts of truth-conditions propositions have, and the relations propositions stand in to these
conditions.

1. Versions of the Coherence Theory of Truth


2. Arguments for Coherence Theories of Truth

3. Criticisms of Coherence Theories of Truth

4. New Objections to Coherentism

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1. Versions of the Coherence Theory of Truth


The coherence theory of truth has several versions. These versions differ on two major issues.
Different versions of the theory give different accounts of the coherence relation. Different
varieties of the theory also give various accounts of the set (or sets) of propositions with which
true propositions cohere. (Such a set will be called a specified set.)

According to some early versions of the coherence theory, the coherence relation is simply
consistency. On this view, to say that a proposition coheres with a specified set of propositions is
to say that the proposition is consistent with the set. This account of coherence is unsatisfactory
for the following reason. Consider two propositions which do not belong to a specified set. These
propositions could both be consistent with a specified set and yet be inconsistent with each other.
If coherence is consistency, the coherence theorist would have to claim that both propositions are
true, but this is impossible.

A more plausible version of the coherence theory states that the coherence relation is some form
of entailment. Entailment can be understood here as strict logical entailment, or entailment in
some looser sense. According to this version, a proposition coheres with a set of propositions if
and only if it is entailed by members of the set. Another more plausible version of the theory,
held for example in (Bradley 1914), is that coherence is mutual explanatory support between
propositions.

The second point on which coherence theorists (coherentists, for short) differ is the constitution
of the specified set of propositions. Coherentists generally agree that the specified set consists of
propositions believed or held to be true. They differ on the questions of who believes the
propositions and when. At one extreme, coherence theorists can hold that the specified set of
propositions is the largest consistent set of propositions currently believed by actual people. For
such a version of the theory, see Young (1995). According to a moderate position, the specified
set consists of those propositions which will be believed when people like us (with finite
cognitive capacities) have reached some limit of inquiry. For such a coherence theory, see
Putnam (1981). At the other extreme, coherence theorists can maintain that the specified set
contains the propositions which would be believed by an omniscient being. Some idealists seem
to accept this account of the specified set.

If the specified set is a set actually believed, or even a set which would be believed by people
like us at some limit of inquiry, coherentism involves the rejection of realism about truth.
Realism about truth involves acceptance of the principle of bivalence (according to which every
proposition is either true or false) and the principle of transcendence (which says that a
proposition may be true even though it cannot be known to be true). Coherentists who do not
believe that the specified set is the set of propositions believed by an omniscient being are
committed to rejection of the principle of bivalence since it is not the case that for every
proposition either it or a contrary proposition coheres with the specified set. They reject the
principle of transcendence since, if a proposition coheres with a set of beliefs, it can be known to
cohere with the set.

2. Arguments for Coherence Theories of Truth


Two principal lines of argument have led philosophers to adopt a coherence theory of truth. Early
advocates of coherence theories were persuaded by reflection on metaphysical questions. More
recently, epistemological and semantic considerations have been the basis for coherence theories.

2.1 The Metaphysical Route to Coherentism

Early versions of the coherence theory were associated with idealism. Walker (1989) attributes
coherentism to Spinoza, Kant, Fichte and Hegel. Certainly a coherence theory was adopted by a
number of British Idealists in the last years of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the
twentieth. See, for example, F.H. Bradley (1914).

Idealists are led to a coherence theory of truth by their metaphysical position. Advocates of the
correspondence theory believe that a belief is (at least most of the time) ontologically distinct
from the objective conditions which make the belief true. Idealists do not believe that there is an
ontological distinction between beliefs and what makes beliefs true. From the idealists'
perspective, reality is something like a collection of beliefs. Consequently, a belief cannot be true
because it corresponds to something which is not a belief. Instead, the truth of a belief can only
consist in its coherence with other beliefs. A coherence theory of truth which results from
idealism usually leads to the view that truth comes in degrees. A belief is true to the degree that it
coheres with other beliefs.

Since idealists do not recognize an ontological distinction between beliefs and what makes them
true, distinguishing between versions of the coherence theory of truth adopted by idealists and an
identity theory of truth can be difficult. The article on Bradley in this Encyclopedia (Candlish
2006) argues that Bradley had an identity theory, not a coherence theory.

In recent years metaphysical arguments for coherentism have found few advocates. This is due to
the fact that idealism is not widely held.
2.2 Epistemological Routes to Coherentism

Blanshard (1939, ch. XXVI) argues that a coherence theory of justification leads to a coherence
theory of truth. His argument runs as follows. Someone might hold that coherence with a set of
beliefs is the test of truth but that truth consists in correspondence to objective facts. If, however,
truth consists in correspondence to objective facts, coherence with a set of beliefs will not be a
test of truth. This is the case since there is no guarantee that a perfectly coherent set of beliefs
matches objective reality. Since coherence with a set of beliefs is a test of truth, truth cannot
consist in correspondence.

Blanshard's argument has been criticised by, for example, Rescher (1973). Blanshard's argument
depends on the claim that coherence with a set of beliefs is the test of truth. Understood in one
sense, this claim is plausible enough. Blanshard, however, has to understand this claim in a very
strong sense: coherence with a set of beliefs is an infallible test of truth. If coherence with a set
of beliefs is simply a good but fallible test of truth, as Rescher suggests, the argument fails. The
"falling apart" of truth and justification to which Blanshard refers is to be expected if truth is
only a fallible test of truth.

Another epistemological argument for coherentism is based on the view that we cannot "get
outside" our set of beliefs and compare propositions to objective facts. A version of this argument
was advanced by some logical positivists including Hempel (1935) and Neurath (1983). This
argument, like Blanshard's, depends on a coherence theory of justification. The argument infers
from such a theory that we can only know that a proposition coheres with a set of beliefs. We can
never know that a proposition corresponds to reality.

This argument is subject to at least two criticisms. For a start, it depends on a coherence theory
of justification, and is vulnerable to any objections to this theory. More importantly, a coherence
theory of truth does not follow from the premisses. We cannot infer from the fact that a
proposition cannot be known to correspond to reality that it does not correspond to reality. Even
if correspondence theorists admit that we can only know which propositions cohere with our
beliefs, they can still hold that truth consists in correspondence. If correspondence theorists adopt
this position, they accept that there may be truths which cannot be known. Alternatively, they can
argue, as does Davidson (1986), that the coherence of a proposition with a set of beliefs is a good
indication that the proposition corresponds to objective facts and that we can know that
propositions correspond.

Coherence theorists need to argue that propositions cannot correspond to objective facts, not
merely that they cannot be known to correspond. In order to do this, the foregoing argument for
coherentism must be supplemented. One way to supplement the argument would be to argue as
follows. As noted above, the correspondence and coherence theories have differing views about
the nature of truth conditions. One way to decide which account of truth conditions is correct is
to pay attention to the process by which propositions are assigned truth conditions. Coherence
theorists can argue that the truth conditions of a proposition are the conditions under which
speakers make a practice of asserting it. Coherentists can then maintain that speakers can only
make a practice of asserting a proposition under conditions the speakers are able to recognise as
justifying the proposition. Now the (supposed) inability of speakers to "get outside" of their
beliefs is significant. Coherentists can argue that the only conditions speakers can recognise as
justifying a proposition are the conditions under which it coheres with their beliefs. When the
speakers make a practice of asserting the proposition under these conditions, they become the
proposition's truth conditions. For an argument of this sort see Young (1995).

3. Criticisms of Coherence Theories of Truth


Any coherence theory of truth faces two principal challenges. The first may be called the
specification objection. The second is the transcendence objection.

3.1 The Specification Objection

According to the specification objection, coherence theorists have no way to identify the
specified set of propositions without contradicting their position. This objection originates in
Russell (1907). Opponents of the coherence theory can argue as follows. The proposition (1)
Jane Austen was hanged for murder coheres with some set of propositions. (2) Jane Austen
died in her bed coheres with another set of propositions. No one supposes that the first of these
propositions is true, in spite of the fact that it coheres with a set of propositions. The specification
objection charges that coherence theorists have no grounds for saying that (1) is false and (2)
true.

Some responses to the specification problem are unsuccessful. One could say that we have
grounds for saying that (1) is false and (2) is true because the latter coheres with propositions
which correspond to the facts. Coherentists cannot, however, adopt this response without
contradicting their position. Sometimes coherence theorists maintain that the specified system is
the most comprehensive system, but this is not the basis of a successful response to the
specification problem. Coherentists can only, unless they are to compromise their position,
define comprehensiveness in terms of the size of a system. Coherentists cannot, for example, talk
about the most comprehensive system composed of propositions which correspond to reality.
There is no reason, however, why two or more systems cannot be equally large. Other criteria of
the specified system, to which coherentists frequently appeal, are similarly unable to solve the
specification problem. These criteria include simplicity, empirical adequacy and others. Again,
there seems to be no reason why two or more systems cannot equally meet these criteria.

Although some responses to the Russell's version of the specification objection are unsuccessful,
it is unable to refute the coherence theory. Coherentists do not believe that the truth of a
proposition consists in coherence with any arbitrarily chosen set of propositions. Rather, they
hold that truth consists in coherence with a set of beliefs, or with a set of propositions held to be
true. No one actually believes the set of propositions with which (1) coheres. Coherence theorists
conclude that they can hold that (1) is false without contradicting themselves.

A more sophisticated version of the specification objection has been advanced by Walker (1989);
for a discussion, see Wright (1995). Walker argues as follows. In responding to Russell's version
of the specification objection, coherentists claim that some set of propositions, call it S, is
believed. They are committed to the truth of (3) S is believed. The question of what it is for (3)
to be true then arises. Coherence theorists might answer this question by saying that "S is
believed is believed" is true. If they give this answer, they are apparently off on an infinite
regress, and they will never say what it is for a proposition to be true. Their plight is worsened by
the fact that arbitrarily chosen sets of propositions can include propositions about what is
believed. So, for example, there will be a set which contains "Jane Austen was hanged for
murder," "Jane Austen was hanged for murder is believed," and so on. The only way to stop the
regress seems to be to say that the truth conditions of (3) consist in the objective fact S is
believed. If, however, coherence theorists adopt this position, they seem to contradict their own
position by accepting that the truth conditions of some proposition consist in facts, not in
propositions in a set of beliefs.

There is some doubt about whether Walker's version of the specification objection succeeds.
Coherence theorists can reply to Walker by saying that nothing in their position is inconsistent
with the view that there is a set of propositions which is believed. Even though this objective fact
obtains, the truth conditions of propositions, including propositions about which sets of
propositions are believed, are the conditions under which they cohere with a set of propositions.
For a defence of the coherence theory against Walker's version of the specification objection, see
Young (2001).

A coherence theory of truth gives rise to a regress, but it is not a vicious regress and the
correspondence theory faces a similar regress. If we say that p is true if and only if it coheres
with a specified set of propositions, we may be asked about the truth conditions of p coheres
with a specified set. Plainly, this is the start of a regress, but not one to worry about. It is just
what one would expect, given that the coherence theory states that it gives an account of the truth
conditions of all propositions. The correspondence theory faces a similar benign regress. The
correspondence theory states that a proposition is true if and only if it corresponds to certain
objective conditions. The proposition p corresponds to certain objective conditions is also true
if and only if it corresponds to certain objective conditions, and so on.

3.2 The Transcendence Objection

The transcendence objection charges that a coherence theory of truth is unable to account for the
fact that some propositions are true which cohere with no set of beliefs. According to this
objection, truth transcends any set of beliefs. Someone might argue, for example, that the
proposition Jane Austen wrote ten sentences on November 17th, 1807 is either true or false. If it
is false, some other proposition about how many sentences Austen wrote that day is true. No
proposition, however, about precisely how many sentences Austen wrote coheres with any set of
beliefs and we may safely assume that none will ever cohere with a set of beliefs. Opponents of
the coherence theory will conclude that there is at least one true proposition which does not
cohere with any set of beliefs.

Some versions of the coherence theory are immune to the transcendence objection. A version
which holds that truth is coherence with the beliefs of an omniscient being is proof against the
objection. Every truth coheres with the set of beliefs of an omniscient being. All other versions of
the theory, however, have to cope with the objection, including the view that truth is coherence
with a set of propositions believed at the limit of inquiry. Even at the limit of inquiry, finite
creatures will not be able to decide every question, and truth may transcend what coheres with
their beliefs.

Coherence theorists can defend their position against the transcendence objection by maintaining
that the objection begs the question. Those who present the objection assume, generally without
argument, that it is possible that some proposition be true even though it does not cohere with
any set of beliefs. This is precisely what coherence theorists deny. Coherence theorists have
arguments for believing that truth cannot transcend what coheres with some set of beliefs. Their
opponents need to take issue with these arguments rather than simply assert that truth can
transcend what coheres with a specified system.

4. New Objections to Coherentism


Paul Thagard is the author of the first of two recent new arguments against the coherence theory.
Thagard states his argument as follows:

if there is a world independent of representations of it, as historical evidence suggests, then the
aim of representation should be to describe the world, not just to relate to other representations.
My argument does not refute the coherence theory, but shows that it implausibly gives minds too
large a place in constituting truth. (Thagard 2007: 29-30)

Thagard's argument seems to be that if there is a mind-independent world, then our


representations are representations of the world. (He says representations should be of the
world, but the argument is invalid with the addition of the auxiliary verb.) The world existed
before humans and our representations, including our propositional representations. (So history
and, Thagard would likely say, our best science tells us.) Therefore, representations, including
propositional representations, are representations of a mind-independent world. The second
sentence of the passage just quoted suggests that the only way that coherentists can reject this
argument is to adopt some sort of idealism. That is, they can only reject the minor premiss of the
argument as reconstructed. Otherwise they are committed to saying that propositions represent
the world and, Thagard seems to suggest, this is to say that propositions have the sort of truth-
conditions posited by a correspondence theory. So the coherence theory is false.

In reply to this argument, coherentists can deny that propositions are representations of a mind-
independent world. To say that a proposition is true is to say that it is supported by a specified
system of propositions. So, the coherentist can say, propositions are representations of systems of
beliefs, not representations of a mind-independent world. To assert a proposition is to assert that
it is entailed by a system of beliefs. The coherentist holds that even if there is a mind-
independent world, it does not follow that the the point of representations is to represent this
world. If coherentists have been led to their position by an epistemological route, they believe
that we cannot get outside our system of beliefs. If we cannot get outside of our system of
beliefs, then it is hard to see how we can be said to represent a mind-independent reality.

Colin McGinn has proposed the other new objection to coherentism. He argues (McGinn 2002:
195) that coherence theorists are committed to idealism. Like Thagard, he takes idealism to be
obviously false, so the argument is a reductio. McGinn's argument runs as follows. Coherentists
are committed to the view that, for example, Snow falls from the sky is true iff the belief that
snow falls from the sky coheres with other beliefs. Now it follows from this and the redundancy
biconditional (p is true iff p) that snow falls from the sky iff the belief that snow falls from the
sky coheres with other beliefs. It appears then that the coherence theorist is committed to the
view that snow could not fall from the sky unless the belief that snow falls from the sky coheres
with other beliefs. From this it follows that how things are depends on what is believed about
them. This seems strange to McGinn since he thinks, reasonably, that snow could fall from the
sky even if there were no beliefs about snow, or anything else. The linking of how things are and
how they are believed to be leads McGinn to say that coherentists are committed to idealism, this
being the view that how things are mind-dependent.

Coherentists have a response to this objection. McGinn's argument works because he takes it that
the redundancy biconditional means something like p is true because p. Only if redundancy
biconditionals are understood in this way does McGinn's argument go through. McGinn needs to
be talking about what makes Snow falls from the sky true for his reductio to work. Otherwise,
coherentists who reject his argument cannot be charged with idealism. He assumes, in a way that
a coherent theorist can regard as question-begging, that the truth-maker of the sentence in
question is an objective way the world is. Coherentists deny that any sentences are made true by
objective conditions. In particular, they hold that the falling of snow from the sky does not make
Snow falls from the sky true. Coherentists hold that it, like any other sentence, is true because it
coheres with a system of beliefs. So coherentists appear to have a plausible defence against
McGinn's objection.

Bibliography

Coherentist Theories of Justification


Coherentism is a view about the structure of justification or knowledge. The coherentist's thesis
is normally formulated in terms of a denial of its contrary foundationalism. Coherentism thus
claims, minimally, that not all knowledge and justified belief rest ultimately on a foundation of
noninferential knowledge or justified belief.

This negative construal of coherentism occurs because of the prominence of the regress problem
in the history of epistemology, and the long-held assumption that only foundationalism provides
an adequate, non-skeptical solution to that problem. After responding to the regress problem by
denying foundationalism, coherentists normally characterize their view positively by replacing
the foundationalism metaphor of a building as a model for the structure of knowledge with
different metaphors, such as the metaphor which models our knowledge on a ship at sea whose
seaworthiness must be ensured by repairs to any part in need of it. Coherentists typically hold
that justification is solely a function of some relationship between beliefs, none of which are
privileged beliefs in the way maintained by foundationlists, with different varieties of
coherentism individuated by the specific relationship among beliefs appealed to by that version.

1. The Regress Problem


2. The Positive Account

o 2.1 The Things Over Which Coherence is Defined

o 2.2 The Coherence Relation

3. Problems for Coherentism

o 3.1 Problems Related to the Basing Relation

o 3.2 The Isolation Objection

o 3.3 Problems Related to the Truth Connection

Bibliography

Other Internet Resources

Related Entries

1. The Regress Problem


When we are justified in believing a claim, we often are so justified because our belief is based
on other beliefs. Yet, it is not an adequate defense of a belief merely to cite some other belief that
supports it, for the supporting belief may have no epistemic credentials at all it may be a
belief based on mere prejudice, for example. In order for the supporting belief to do the work
required of it, it must itself pass epistemic muster, standardly understood to mean that it must
itself be justified. If so, however, the question of what justifies this belief arises as well. If it is
justified on the basis of some yet further belief, that belief, too, will have to be justified; and the
question will arise as to what justifies it.

Thus arises the regress problem in epistemology. Skeptics maintain that the regress cannot be
avoided and hence that justification is impossible. Infinitists endorse the regress as well, but
argue that the regress is not vicious and hence does not show that justification is impossible.
Foundationalists and coherentists agree that the regress can be avoided and that justification is
possible. They disagree about how to avoid the regress. According to foundationalism, the
regress is found by finding a stopping point for the regress in terms of foundational beliefs that
are justified but not wholly justified by some relationship to further beliefs. Coherentists deny
the need and the possibility of finding such stopping points for the regress. Sometimes
coherentism is described as the view that allows that justification can proceed in a circle (as long
as the circle is large enough), and that is one logically possible version of the view (though it is
very hard to find a defender of this version of coherentism). The version of coherentism that is
more popular, however, objects in a more fundamental way to the regress argument. This version
of coherentism denies that justification is linear in the way presupposed by the regress argument.
Instead, such versions of coherentism maintain that justification is holistic in character, and the
standard metaphors for coherentism are intended to convey this aspect of the view. Neurath's
boat metaphor according to which our ship of beliefs is at sea, requiring the ongoing
replacement of whatever parts are defective in order to remain seaworthyand Quine's web of
belief metaphoraccording to which our beliefs form an interconnected web in which the
structure hangs or falls as a whole both convey the idea that justification is a feature of a
system of beliefs.

To see exactly where this conception of justification takes a stand on the regress problem, a
formulation of the standard skeptical version of the regress argument will be helpful. To
formulate such an argument, we need to use the idea of an inferential chain of reasons. Such an
inferential chain traces the inferential dependence of a given belief, including in it as first link
the belief in question, as second link whatever reason justifies it, as third link whatever
epistemically supports the reason in question, and so on. The skeptical argument then proceeds
as follows:

1. No belief is justified unless its chain of reasons

o is infinitely long,

o stops, or

o goes in a circle.

2. An infinitely long chain of reasons involves a vicious regress of reasons that cannot
justify any belief.

3. Any stopping point to terminate the chain of reasons is arbitrary, leaving every
subsequent link in the chain depending on a beginning point that cannot justify its
successor link, ultimately leaving one with no justification at all.

4. Circular arguments cannot justify anything, leaving a chain of reasons that goes in a
circle incapable of justifying any belief.

As noted, coherentists are ordinarily characterized as maintaining that premise 4 of this argument
is false. Though such a view would count as a version of coherentism, standard coherentism has
no quarrel with 4, but instead rejects 1 because it presupposes that justification is non-holistic.
Premise 1 assumes that justification is linear rather than holistic in virtue of characterizing
justification in terms of inferential chains of reasons, and it is this feature of the regress problem
to which typical coherentists object.

In sum, then, coherentism can be negatively characterized as the view that, first, agrees with
foundationalism that there is no regress of justification that is infinite (thereby rejecting both
skepticism and infinitism) and, second, disagrees with foundationalism that justification depends
on having an inferential chain of reasons with a suitable stopping point. This negative point can
be maintained either by denying that the chain has a stopping point, thereby endorsing a linear
version of coherentism, or by denying the assumption that justification requires the existence of
an inferential chain of reasons, thereby endorsing a holistic viewpoint. Since the primary
examples of coherentism in the history of the view are holistic in nature, I will focus in the
remainder of this entry on this version of the view.

2. The Positive Account


Coherentists often defend their view by attacking foundationalism, implicitly relying on the
implausibility of infinitism and skepticism. They attack foundationalism by arguing that no
plausible version of the view will be able to supply enough in the way of foundational beliefs to
support the entire structure of belief. This attack takes two forms. First, coherentists argue
against the very idea of a basic belief, maintaining that it is always a sensible question to ask,
Why do you believe that (i.e., what reason can you give me for thinking that is true)? Second,
coherentists attack the idea that the kind of foundation developed will be adequate to support the
structure. If, as is usual, foundationalists limit foundational beliefs to those about our experience
in the specious present, it is hard to see how such a limited foundation can support the entire
edifice of beliefs, including beliefs about the past and future, about the vast array of scientific
opinion both about the observable realm and the unobservable, and about the abstract domain of
mathematical and logical truth and the truths of morality. Foundationalists may, of course,
introduce epistemic principles of justification that license whatever chain of reasons they wish to
endorse from the foundations to the rest of the edifice of belief, but the resulting theory will look
more and more ad hoc as new epistemic principles are offered whenever the threat of skepticism
looms regarding a kind of belief not defensible by standard inductive and deductive rules of
inference.

Regardless of the persuasiveness of these challenges to foundationalism, coherentists must and


do go beyond negative philosophy to provide a positive characterization of their view. A bit of
taxonomy and some specific examples will allow us to see how the required positive
characterization is provided by coherentists. A useful taxonomy for coherentism can be provided
by distinguishing between subjective and objective versions of coherentism. At a purely formal
level, a version of coherentism results from specifying two things: first, the things that must
cohere in order for a given belief to be justified, and second, the relation that must hold among
these things in order for the belief in question to be justified. In the realm of the logical space of
coherentism, both features can be given subjective or objective construals.

2.1 The Things Over Which Coherence is Defined

Consider first the items that need to cohere. As noted already, coherentists typically adopt a
subjective viewpoint regarding the items that need to cohere, maintaining that the system on
which coherence is defined is the person's system of beliefs. Coherence could be defined relative
to other, more objective systems, however. Social versions of coherentism may define coherence
relative to the system of common knowledge in a given society, for example, and religious
versions may define coherence relative to some body of theological doctrine. These latter two
systems are objective in that the obtaining of the system in question implies nothing about the
person whose belief is being evaluated. For this reason, they tend to be rather implausible, since
they deny the perspectival character of justification, according to which whether or not one's
beliefs are justified depends on facts about oneself and one's own perspective on the world.
Versions that combine subjective and objective features are also possible. For example, a theory
might begin with the system of a person's beliefs, and supplement it with additional claims that
any normal person would believe in that person's situation. It is true, however, that standard
versions of coherentism are subjective about the items relative to which coherence is defined.

Even if this aspect of the view is subjective, however, belief is not the only subjective item to
which a theorist might appeal, leaving one to wonder what explains the uniform agreement
among coherentists that coherence should be defined relative to the class of beliefs. The reasons
for this uniformity fall into two categories. One kind involves the claim that the only other
possibly relevant mental states are experiential states (appearance states, sensation states), and
that such states cannot be reasons at all since they lack propositional content(see Davidson
1989). This viewpoint has little plausibility to it, however. It may be true that there are some
experiential states without content (perhaps the experience of pain is an experiential state without
content), but it is equally true that some have content. It can appear to a person that it is raining,
and the mental state involved has as content the proposition that it is raining.

A more plausible way to pursue this kind of argument is to maintain that if experiential states
play a role in justification, they'll have to be able to play that role whether or not they are the
kind of state that has propositional content. So, if some lack content and cannot be reasons on
account of lacking content, then experiential states cannot play a role at all.

The difficulty with this line of argument is the conception of reasons it involves. It is true that if
an experience has no content, then it cannot be in virtue of its content that it provides a reason.
Even so, it is far from obvious that a reason has to be one in virtue of its content, for if we attend
to ordinary defenses people give of their beliefs, they often cite their experience as a reason. One
can question whether they are merely explaining their beliefs rather than justifying them, but
when that distinction is clarified, they'll still cite their experience as their reason (Why are you
grimacing? Because my leg hurts. Why do you think your leg hurts? Because I can feel
it. Well, your experience may explain why you believe that your leg hurts, but I'm not asking
for an explanation of your belief, I'm asking you to provide a reason for thinking that your belief
that your leg hurts is correct; can you give me such a reason? Yes, because I can feel it
hurting)

The second category of defense for the idea that coherence is a relation on beliefs involves an
argument to the effect that other mental states are either irrelevant to the question of the
epistemic status of a belief (e.g., affective states such as hoping, wishing, fearing, and the like) or
are insufficient for generating positive epistemic status (e.g., states such as sensation states or
appearance states) there is, after all, the issue of what to make of the sensory input, and that
issue takes us beyond the sensation state itself (see Lehrer 1974, esp. p. 188). The former point is
unproblematic, but the latter point fails to imply the claim in question. Arguing that an appeal to
experiential states is insufficient for justification in no way shows that an appeal to such states is
not necessary for an adequate account of justification.

There is, however, a deeper motivation behind coherentists' aversion to defining coherence over
a subjective system that includes experiential states. The worry is that appealing to experiential
states in any way will result in a version of foundationalism. The understanding of
foundationalism which results from the regress argument involves two features. The first is an
asymmetry condition on the justification of beliefs that inferential beliefs are justified in a
way different from the way in which non-inferential beliefs are justified and the second is an
account of intrinsic or self-warrant for the beliefs which are foundationally warranted and which
support the entire structure of justified beliefs. There are various proposals for how this latter
commitment of foundationalism is to be formulated, but we can already see the outline of an
argument for requiring that coherence not be defined over a system that includes experiential
states. For if a theory were to include such states in the class of things with which a belief must
cohere in order to be justified, the above considerations might seem to suggest that such a theory
would have to involve some notion of intrinsic warrant or self-warrant. Some justification or
warrant would be possessed by a belief, but not in virtue of some warrant-conferring relationship
to any other belief. Hence, it might seem, this relation between the appearances and related
beliefs would have to generate at least some positive degree of warrant for such beliefs, even if
that warrant were not sufficient for full justification. Even if not sufficient for full justification,
though, the theory would appear typically foundationalist in that it includes some notion of
positive warrant not dependent on any relationship to other beliefs.

This argument is quite persuasive, but is ultimately flawed. The distinctive feature of
foundationalism, in the context of the relationship between appearances and beliefs, is that this
relation between appearances and beliefs is taken to be one which imparts positive epistemic
status (perhaps only in the absence of defeaters). So, for example, if a version of foundationalism
appeals to the appearance that it is raining as that which undergirds the foundational warrant for
the belief that it is raining, that theory must maintain that the appearance supplies some positive
warrant for the belief. It is this warrant-conferring requirement that allows coherentism to escape
the above argument, for it is open to coherentists to deny that appearances impart, or tend to
impart (even in the absence of defeaters), any degree of positive epistemic status for related
beliefs. The coherentist can maintain, instead, that appearances are necessary (in the usual
situations) for those beliefs to have some degree of positive epistemic status, but in no way
sufficient in themselves for any degree of positive epistemic status. Coherentists can go on to
identify what would be sufficient in conjunction with the relation to appearances in typically
coherentist fashion, focusing on the way in which any one of our beliefs is related to an entire
system of information in question. The resulting theory would be one in which experience plays
a role, but not the kind of role that is distinctive of foundationalism.

Another way to make this same point is to recall that coherentism is not committed to the view
that coherence is a relation on the system of the person's beliefs. For one thing, coherence might
be a relation on an objective body of information, perhaps in the form of coherence with some
body of common knowledge (or, more plausibly, by supplementing a system of beliefs with
information any normal person would believe). So when coherentists defend a subjective version
of the items over which coherence is defined, there cannot be some definitional requirement on
the view that coherence must be a relation on a system of beliefs. That conclusion could be
drawn only if there were a sound argument that showed that any appeal to experience would turn
a theory into a version of foundationalism. Since the argument for that conclusion is flawed as
explained above, coherentism proper need not prohibit the subjective system over which
coherence is defined from containing experiential states.
2.2 The Relation of Coherence

The second positive feature required of coherentism is a clarification of the relation of coherence
itself, and here again we find an important distinction between subjective and objective
approaches. The most popular objective approach is explanatory coherentism, which defines
coherence in terms of that which makes for a good explanation. On such a view, hypotheses are
justified by explaining the data, and the data are justified by being explained by our hypotheses.
The central task for such a theory is to state conditions under which such explanation occurs.

BonJour (1985) presents a different objective account of the coherence relation, citing the
following five features in his account:

1. logical consistency;

2. the extent to which the system in question is probabilistically consistent;

3. the extent to which inferential connections exist between beliefs, both in terms of the
number of such connections and their strength;

4. the inverse of the degree to which the system is divided into unrelated, unconnected
subsystems of belief; and

5. the inverse of the degree to which the system of belief contains unexplained anomalies.
(pp. 95,98)

These factors are a good beginning toward an account of objective coherence, but by themselves
they are not enough. We need to be told, in addition, what function on these five factors is the
correct one by which to define coherence. That is, we need to know how to weight each of these
factors to provide an assessment of the overall coherence of the system.

Even such a specification of the correct function on these factors would not be enough. One
obvious fact about justification is that not all beliefs are justified to the same degree, so once we
know what the overall coherence level is for a system of beliefs, we will need some further
account of how this overall coherence level is used to determine the justificatory level of
particular beliefs. It would be easy if the justificatory level simply matched the overall coherence
level for the system itself, but this easy answer conflicts with the fact that not all beliefs are
justified to the same degree.

One way to address this problem is to distinguish between beliefs and strength of belief or
degrees of belief. We believe some things more strongly or to a greater degree than other things.
For example, I believe there is a cup of coffee on my desk much more strongly than I believe that
I visited my parents in 1993, even though I believe both of those claims. Using the concept of a
degree of belief, a coherentist may be able to identify what degree of belief coheres with a
system of (degrees of) belief, and thereby explain how some beliefs are more justified than
others. The explanation would be that one belief is more justified than another just in case a
greater degree of belief coheres with the relevant system for one of the two beliefs.
The best-known example of a theory that employs the language of degrees of belief is also a
useful example of a subjective account of the coherence relation. Such a subjective account can
be developed by identifying a subjective theory of evidence that determines whether and when a
person's belief, or degree of belief, is justified. A beautiful and elegant theory of this sort is a
version of probabilistic Bayesianism. The version in question identifies justified beliefs with
probabilistic coherence, so that a (degree of) belief is justified if and only if it is part of a system
of beliefs against which no dutch book can be made. (A dutch book is a series of fair bets which
are such that, if accepted, are guaranteed to produce a net loss.) In addition, this version of
Bayesianism places a conditionalization requirement on justified changes in belief.
Conditionalization requires that when new information is learned, one's new degree of belief
match one's conditional degree of belief on that information prior to learning it. So if p is the new
information learned, one should change one's degree of belief in q so that it matches one's degree
of belief in q given p (together with everything else one knows) prior to learning q. The idea is
that each person has an internal, subjective theory of evidence at a given time, in the form of
conditional beliefs concerning all possible future courses of experience, so that when new
information is acquired, all one needs to do is consult one's prior conditional degree of belief to
determine what one's new degree of belief should be. Further, it is this subjective theory of
evidence that defines the relation of coherence on the system of beliefs in question: coherence
obtains when a belief conforms to the subjective theory of evidence in question, given the other
items in the set of things over which coherence is defined.

More generally, subjective versions of the coherence relation can be thought of in terms of the
specification of a theory of evidence that is fully internal to the believer. One obvious way for the
theory of evidence to be fully internal is for the theory of evidence to be contained within the
belief system itself, as is true on the Bayesian theory above. There are other options, however. A
subjective theory could appeal to dispositions to believe rather than to actual beliefs, or to
something like one's deepest epistemic standards for trying to get to the truth and avoid error.
Foley (1986) develops such a view in service of a type of foundationalist theory, understanding
one's deepest standards in terms of the views one would hold given time to reflect without
limitation and interference, and subjective coherentists could adopt much of this account in
service of their view.

This broader characterization of the options open to subjective versions of the coherence relation
carries the additional cost of appealing to the concept of what is internal to a believer, a notion
that is none too clear (see the related entry justification, epistemic, internalist vs. externalist
conceptions of). In broad terms, there are two important ways of thinking about what is internal
here, one emphasizing whether the feature in question is somehow in the head, and the other
emphasizing whether the feature is accessible to the believer on the basis of reflection alone.
Unconscious beliefs would count as internal in the first sense, but not in the second; one's own
existence is internal in the second sense, but presumably not in the first.

When offering a taxonomy of subjective versus objective characterizations of the coherence


relation, it is not necessary to prefer one of these characterizations of what is internal. Instead,
we can allow either to be used to specify a subjective account. Doing so places a greater burden
on what kinds of arguments could be given for preferring one account of the coherence relation
to another, and here the arguments will proceed in two stages. The first stage will address
whether one's account of the coherence relation should be objective or subjective. On the side of
an objective construal are the manifold intuitions in which we describe views as unjustified even
though they are, from the point of view of the believer, the best view to hold. For example, we
would say that cultic beliefs, such as the belief that accepting a blood transfusion is a terrible
thing to do, are unjustified; and our judgment is not altered by learning that the believer in
question was raised in the cult and can't be held responsible for knowing better. On the side of a
subjective construal are the arguments for access internalism, according to which the fact that
some people can't be held responsible for knowing better is a clear sign that their beliefs are
justified, for justification is a property whose presence is detected by careful reflection. Another
argument for subjective accounts relies on the new evil demon problem. Descartes' evil demon
problem threatens the truth of our beliefs, for the demon makes the beliefs of the denizens of that
world false. The new evil demon problem involves the concept of justification rather than truth,
threatening theories that require objective likelihood of truth for a belief to be justified. For
beliefs in demon worlds are false and likely to be so, but seem to have the same epistemic status
as our beliefs do, since, after all, they could be us!

Recently, a new argument has appeared for subjective accounts of justification and, by extension,
for subjective accounts of the coherence relation, if coherentism is the preferred theory of
justification. This argument appeals to the idea that an adequate theory of knowledge needs to
account both for the nature of knowledge and for the value of knowledge. This issue arose first in
Plato's dialogue between Meno and Socrates, in which Meno originally proposes that knowledge
is more valuable than true belief because it get us what we want (his particular example is
finding the way to Larissa). Socrates points out that true belief will work just as well, a response
that befuddles Meno. When he finally replies, he expresses perplexity regarding two things. He
first wonders whether knowledge is more than true belief, and he also questions why we prize
knowledge more than true belief. The first issue is one concerning the nature of knowledge, and
the second concerning the value of knowledge. To account for the nature of knowledge requires
minimally that one offer a theory of knowledge that is counterexample-free. To account for the
value of knowledge requires an explanation of why knowledge is more valuable than its (proper)
parts, including true belief and justified true belief (for more on why knowledge is more than
justified true belief, see knowledge, analysis of). Such an explanation would seem to require
showing two things: first, that justified true belief is more valuable than true belief; and second,
that justified true belief plus whatever further condition is needed to produce a counterexample-
free account of the nature of knowledge is more valuable than justified true belief on its own.
These requirements show the need for a conception of justification that adds value to true belief,
and it is difficult for objective theories of justification to discharge this obligation. In the context
of objective accounts of the coherence relation, such an account would be governed by a formal
constraint to the effect that satisfying that account would increase one's chances of getting to the
truth, and theories of justification guided by such a constraint are prime examples of theories that
find it difficult to explain why justified true belief is more valuable than mere true belief. The
problem they encounter is called "the swamping problem." It occurs when values interact in such
a way that their combination is no more valuable than one of them separately, even though both
factors are positively valuable. Examples that provide relevant analogies to the epistemic case
include: beautiful art is no more valuable in terms of beauty for having been produced by an
artist who usually produces beautiful artwork; functional furniture has no more functional value
for coming from a factory that normally produces functional furniture. Just so, true beliefs are no
more valuable from the epistemic point of view the point of view defined in terms of the goal
of getting to the truth and avoiding error by having the additional property of being likely to
be true.

Adopting a subjective theory allows one to avoid the swamping problem. The swamping
problem arises for theories that characterize the teleological concept of justification in terms of
properties whose presence makes a belief an effective means for getting to the goal of believing
the truth and avoiding error. Subjective theories may also characterize the relationship between
justification and truth in terms of a means/ends relationship, but they reject the requirement that
something is a means to an end only if it is an effective means to that end, i.e., only if it increases
the objective chances of that goal being realized. Subjectivists advert to the deepest and most
important goals in life as examples, for such goals are rarely ones for which we have much idea
of which means will be effective. Consider, for example, the goal of securing some particular
person as a spouse, or the goal of raising psychologically healthy, emotionally responsible
children. In each case, there are well-known ways in which achieving these goals can be
sabotaged, and so we try not to proceed in that fashion. The problem is that there are too many
ways that have worked for other people in securing similar goals, with no good way of assessing
which of these ways would be effective in the present case. Doing nothing will certainly not
work, but among the various actions available, we can only choose and hope for the best.

Subjectivists say the same for beliefs. They maintain that what is objectively a good ground for a
belief is no more transparent to us than is how to maximize happiness over a lifetime. We learn
by trial and error on what to base our beliefs, in much the same way as we fumble along in trying
for fulfilling existence. In doing our best in the pursuit of truth, subjectivists hold, we generate
justification for our beliefs, even if all we have is hope that our grounds for belief make our
beliefs likely to be true.

Whether these arguments on behalf of subjectivism in the theory of knowledge are weighty
enough to overcome the strong intuitions on behalf of more objective accounts is not yet settled,
though there is something approaching a consensus that subjectivism cannot quite be right in
spite of the arguments in its favor. To the extent that the arguments are deemed plausible, a
burden is created for relieving the tension that exists between the attractions of objective
accounts and the arguments for subjective accounts. One move to reconcile this conflict is to
posit different senses of the term justified and its cognates. There are costs to such a move,
however. One cost is that subjectivists and objectivists are confused, thinking they are
disagreeing when they are not. In ordinary cases when a term has more than one meaning,
competent speakers of the language are not confused in this way. Another cost is that ambiguity
must be posited without any linguistic clues to its existence, and ambiguities that linguists would
not discover but can only be discovered by philosophers are suspect for that reason.

3. Problems for Coherentism


Besides these family disputes within the coherentist clan, there are various problems that threaten
to undermine every version of coherentism. The focus here will be on three problems that have
been widely discussed: problems related to the non-linear character of coherentism, the input
problem, and the problem of the truth connection.
3.1 Problems Related to the Basing Relation

The non-linear approach adopted by the most popular versions of coherentism raises concerns
that coherentism is incompatible with a proper account of the basing relation. In brief, an account
of the basing relation is needed to explain the difference between a situation where a person has
good evidence for a belief, but believes it for other reasons, and a situation where has person
holds the belief because of, or on the basis of, the evidence. The idea behind an appeal to the
basing relation is that if the explanation of a person's belief does not appeal to the evidence for
the belief, then the belief itself is not justified (even if the person has good evidence for the belief
and thus the content of the belief is, in some sense, justified for that person). In the former case,
where the belief is based on the evidence for it, we will say that the belief is doxastically
justified; when there is good evidence for the belief, but the belief is held on other grounds, we
will say that the belief is only propositionally justified.

The difficulty is that this way of drawing the distinction makes it appear that holistic coherentism
can only use the distinction if, somehow, the entire belief system of a person explains the holding
of each belief that is a part of the system since, it would seem, a belief needs to be based on that
which justifies it if the belief is to be properly based. If coherentism is at its best in its holistic
guises, then coherentism succumbs because it is unable to distinguish properly based from
improperly based beliefs (see Pollock 1985). If one goes so far as to maintain the stronger
position that coherentism can only be a holistic theory, then coherentists may find themselves in
the position of having to maintain that all warranted beliefs are properly basic. For if holistic
coherentists cannot draw a distinction between properly and improperly based beliefs, every
belief will have automatically survived all requisite tests for warrant just by cohering with the
relevant system. If a belief is properly based when it has survived all appropriate scrutiny, then
all warranted beliefs will be properly basic, according to coherentism (see Plantinga 1993).

Another way to voice this complaint is to find in the belief system a set of beliefs that can be
inferentially related in an appropriate way, thereby allowing for the final step of the inference to
be justified. It doesn't follow, however, that any inferential path using the same set of beliefs is a
justifying one, simply because one such path is. So suppose there are two paths through the same
set of five beliefs, one allowing for justification and the other not allowing for it. Let the contents
of the beliefs be p, q, r, s, and t. Further, let each belief imply the next in sequence, i.e., p implies
q, q implies r, and so forth. Assume as well that p, q, r, and s are all justified for the person in
question. If so, a person can come to justifiably believe t by inferring from p to q to r to s and
then to t. Suppose, however, that there are no other inferential relationships here besides the ones
already assumed. If the order of inference were from p to s to r to q and then to t, believing t
would not be justified. If holistic coherentism can only explain proper basing in terms of
whatever justifies the belief, then holistic coherentism will be in trouble since in the case in
question there is no difference in the system of beliefs in question. The only difference is in the
order of inference, and this difference need imply no difference in belief.

One resource for a coherentist to use in replying to this concern about the basing relation is to
distinguish between that which justifies a belief and that which is epistemically relevant to the
epistemic status of belief, using this distinction to challenge the assumption that proper basing
must be characterized in terms of that which justifies a belief. Consider a very abstract example.
Suppose we have evidence e for p. This evidence can be defeated by further information we
have, and this defeater might itself be undermined by even further information, information that
would reinstate justification for p. Furthermore, there is no limit to the complexity that might be
involved in this sequence of defeaters and reinstaters. Suppose, then, that the sequence of
defeaters and reinstaters is significantly complex, e.g., suppose there are 20 levels of defeaters
and reinstaters. From the perspective of a linear view, what must the person base a belief that p
on in such a case in order for that belief to be justified? It would be unrealistic to assume that all
20 levels play a causal role in the belief, for it is not necessary to consider explicitly the sequence
of defeaters and reinstaters in order to be justified in believing p. All that is necessary is that
there be a reinstater for every level of defeat. If so, however, even a linear theorist will give an
account of the basing relation on which it is acceptable to base a belief on something other than
that which justifies the belief, all-things-considered.

Such a theorist may still maintain that one must base the belief on something that imparts prima
facie justification (the kind of justification that will be all-things-considered justification if there
is a reinstater for every defeater). What matters to the present discussion, however, is that even
for non-holists there can be parts of a system of beliefs that are relevant to the justificatory status
of a belief and yet which need not play a role in the proper basing of a justified belief. If, on the
one hand, everything involved in the all-things-considered justification of a belief has to play a
role in the basing relation, then every theory will be susceptible to unrealistic assumptions about
the basing relation, for it is implausible to think that known rebutted defeaters enter into any kind
of causal or deliberative process of belief formation and hence are not suitable candidates for
helping to explain the presence of the resulting belief. For example, if I build a room with a
blacklight in it, but include a device to block the light from shining on anything less than six feet
off the floor, then I can know the color of my daughter's shirt without this information about
room construction entering into the story of belief formation I needn't consciously think of
that information or engage in any inference guided by it, and that information need to be part of
the cause of my belief. If, on the other hand, a belief can be properly based by being based on
only part of the all-things-considered justification for the belief, then holists are free to clarify the
basing relation in non-holistic terms as well. They can say that a belief is properly based when its
presence is explained by features relevant to the all-things-considered justificatory status of a
belief, even if these features themselves do not constitute an all-things-considered justification of
the belief.

A simple example of such a feature illustrates how this idea would work in a holistic setting. On
a holistic theory, every particular belief is insufficient for warrant on its own. Even so, a given
belief might be an essential ingredient of the larger system on which coherence is defined, where
that system is one of the systems under which a target belief in question could be justified. In
such a case, the belief is relevant to the epistemic status of the target belief, even though it
imparts no warrant to the target belief. Beliefs with such special epistemic relevance can be used
to clarify what is required for a belief to be properly based without violating the holistic
requirement that no such beliefs impart any degree of warrant by themselves.

3.2 The Isolation Objection


A second major problem for coherentism is the isolation objection, also called the input
problem, which Laurence BonJour formulates as follows:
Coherence is purely a matter of the internal relations between the components of the belief
system; it depends in no way on any sort of relation between the system of beliefs and anything
external to that system. Hence if, as a coherence theory claims, coherence is the sole basis for
empirical justification, it follows that a system of empirical beliefs might be adequately justified,
indeed might constitute empirical knowledge, in spite of being utterly out of contact with the
world that it purports to describe. Nothing about any requirement of coherence dictates that a
coherent system of beliefs need receive any sort of input from the world or be in any way
causally influenced by the world (BonJour 1985, p. 108).
The input problem concerns the relationship between a system of beliefs and the external world.
It underlies a multitude of counterexamples to coherentism on which we take a person at a given
time with a coherent system of beliefs whose system of beliefs meshes well with their experience
of the world at that given time. We then freeze this coherent system of beliefs, and vary the
person's experience (so that the person still thinks, e.g., he's climbing a mountain when he's
really at an opera house experiencing a performance of La Boheme), thereby isolating the system
of beliefs from reality. The result is that coherentism seems to be a theory that allows coherence
to imply justification even when the system of beliefs is completely cut off from individuals'
direct experience of the world around them.

The standard response by coherentists is to try to find a way to require some effect of experience
in a belief system, perhaps in the form of spontaneous beliefs (BonJour 1985). Such attempts are
not very promising, and lead to the impression that the only way to deal with the input problem
is to transform coherentism into a version of foundationalism. That is, the harder coherentists try
to find some ineliminable effect of experience on a belief system, the more their theory hinges on
finding a role for experience in the story of justification; and when foundationalism is conceived
as the kind of theory that allows such a role, then the efforts of coherentists to find such a role for
experience look more like acquiescence to the inevitability of affirming foundationalism. For if
the only way to avoid the isolation objection is to insist that a belief system must be responsive
to experience in order for the beliefs involved to be justified, and if any appeal to experience
commits one to foundationalism, then coherentism succumbs to the isolation objection.

As noted above, however, there is nothing in coherentism proper that requires coherence to be
defined solely as a relation on beliefs. It is a mere artifact of the history of the view that
coherentists always claim such, and whatever the force of the isolation objection against standard
versions of coherentism, it disappears as a problem unique to coherence theories once experience
is allowed to play a role in a coherentist theory.

3.3 Problems Related to the Truth Connection

A longstanding objection to coherentism can be expressed by noting that a good piece of fiction
will display the virtue of coherence, but it is obviously unlikely to be true. The idea is that
coherence and likelihood of truth are so far apart that it is implausible to think that coherence
should be conceived of as a guide to truth at all, let alone the singular such guide that
justification is supposed to constitute.
This concern over the truth connection is sometimes put in the form of the alternative systems
objection, according to which there is always some coherent system to fit any belief into, so that
if a person were to make sufficient changes elsewhere in the system, any belief could be
justified. This particular version of the worry involves too many distractions from the
fundamental problem, however. For one thing, it appeals to the idea of making vast changes to
one's system of beliefs, but beliefs are not the sort of thing over which we typically can exert
control. Furthermore, there is no reason to think that only one system of beliefs can be justified,
so rather than constituting an objection to coherentism, this particular formulation of the problem
in question looks more like a pleasantly realistic consequence of any adequate theory of
justification.

Hidden behind the explicit language of the alternative systems objection, however, is a deeper
concern relying on the idea that justification is somehow supposed to be a guide to truth, and
mere coherence is not a likely indicator of truth. The deeper concern will have be to formulated
carefully, however, for once we see the proper response to the isolation objection above, it is far
from clear how coherentism suffers from any failure on this score that would not equally
undermine foundationalism. For one way of thinking about the isolation objection is in terms of
the idea that coherent systems of belief can be completely cut off from reality, in the same way
that a good piece of fiction can be, and once such severance occurs, likelihood of truth must go
as well. As we have seen, however, nothing about coherentism proper forces it to succumb to this
problem (as long as finding a role for experience in the story of justification blocks the objection,
as it must if foundationalism can escape the objection), and if coherentists are able to find a role
for experience in their theory, then coherentism cannot be criticized for failure to provide a
suitable guide to truth anymore than foundationalism can.

Moreover, there are problems with casual formulations of the truth concern. First, such casual
formulations can run into difficulty explaining how one can be justified in believing a scientific
theory rather than believing merely the conjunction of its empirical consequences. Since the
theory implies its empirical consequences, the conjunction will, in ordinary cases, have a higher
probability than the theory (since it is a theorem of the probability calculus that if A entails B,
then the probability of A is less than or equal to the probability of B). Second, casual
formulations of the truth concern ordinarily fall prey to the new evil demon problem discussed
earlier. Inhabitants of demon worlds would appear to have roughly the same justified beliefs that
we have (since they could be us), but their beliefs have little chance of being true. So any
formulation of the truth concern that insists that justification must imply likelihood of truth will
have to find an answer to the new evil demon problem. Further, one of the fundamental lessons
of the lottery and preface paradoxes has been held to be that justified inconsistent beliefs are
possible. (The lottery paradox begins by imagining a fair lottery with a thousand tickets in it.
Each ticket is so unlikely to win that we are justified in believing that it will lose. So we can infer
that no ticket will win. Yet we know that some ticket will win. In the preface paradox, authors are
justified in believing everything in their books. Some preface their book by claiming that, given
human frailty, they are sure that errors remain, errors for which they take complete responsibility.
But then they justifiably believe both that everything in the book is true, and that something in it
is false, from which a contradiction can be easily derived.) The paradoxes are paradoxical
because contradictory beliefs cannot be justified, but inconsistent beliefs, even when the
inconsistency is known, are not the same thing as contradictory beliefs (the challenge, of course,
is to find a principled way to stop the inconsistency from turning into a contradiction). If justified
inconsistent beliefs are possible, and it surely seems that they are, then a system of beliefs can be
justified even if the entire system has no chance whatsoever of being true.

This possibility of justified inconsistent beliefs has been held to constitute a refutation of
coherentism (see, e.g., Foley 1986), but some coherentists have demurred (e.g., Lycan 1996).
One idea is to partition a system of beliefs and only apply the requirement of consistency within
partitions of the system, not to the entire system itself. If consistency applies only with partitions,
then, presumably, that is also where coherence does its work, leaving us with a coherence theory
that is less than globally holistic. A further issue is how the partitioning is to be accomplished,
and in the absence of an account of how to do so, it remains undetermined whether the
possibility of justified inconsistent beliefs is compatible with coherentism.

It is fair to say that the issue of the truth connection has not been resolved for coherentism. In a
way, this fact should not be surprising since the issue of the truth connection is a fundamental
issue in epistemology as a whole, and it affects not only coherentism but its competitors as well.

http://stanford.library.usyd.edu.au/archives/win2003/entries/justep-coherence/

http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/124581/coherentism

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coherentism

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/justep-coherence/

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/truth-coherence/

http://www.iep.utm.edu/coherent/