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Published by lembrambo
Philosophy Epistemology coherentism
Philosophy Epistemology coherentism

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Published by: lembrambo on Jan 31, 2013
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From Tim McGrew,
The Foundations of Knowledge
, chapter 1
  A Rival Account of Justification and Truth
 There is an alternative way to weave together a theory of truth and a concept of  justification, and on this account certain arguments we will deal with in later chaptersmight well be forceless. Although I do not think such theories have much of a claimeither to historical primacy or to intuitive appeal, it is worthwhile here to take a brief  polemical detour into the realm of idealism, with its reliance on "coherence" for a theoryof truth and justification, in order to prepare the ground for the ensuing discussion. The clearest contemporary explication of a coherence concept of justification is due toJonathan Dancy. The notion of coherence of a set of propositions, which figures solargely in this theory, involves not only mutual consistency but also the extent to whicheach proposition in the set is explained by the others. As explanations may be better or worse, the coherence of such a set may be increased by adding a new proposition whichdoes something to strengthen the internal explanatory powers of the set as a whole.On the coherence account, a proposition is true if and only if it is a member of a coherentset. This is criterial rather than definitional: it indicates that we are justified (perhaps) incounting a proposition true if adding it to our belief set increases the coherence of thatset. But if this is the criterion, the coherentist seems to be faced with a severe problem infinding an adequate definition of ‘truth'. For may there not be rival coherent sets of  propositions? And if so, which one is to count as the touchstone of truth? Dancy's answer is that idealists have always insisted that their theory of truth be tieddown to the real world by means of the deliverances of perception. "There is only onecoherent set," says Dancy in explicating the idealist's case, "and . . . this set isdistinguished from all rivals by being empirically grounded." Presumably he intends thisto mean that there is only one relevant coherent set, only one that matters for thedefinition of truth. Dancy continues with a quotation from F. H. Bradley to support hisexposition: My experience is solid . . . so far as in short it is a system. My object is to have aworld as comprehensive and coherent as possible, and, in order to attain thisobject, I have not only to reflect but perpetually to have recourse to the materialsof sense. I must go to this source both to verify the matter which is old and also toincrease it by what is new. And in this way I must depend upon the judgements of  perception. Much might be said regarding this theory of truth, but our present concern is with whathappens when we combine it with the coherence notion of justification which, as Dancy points out, bears a close affinity to the coherence definition of truth. As Dancy explains, each belief is to be evaluated by appeal to the role it plays in the belief-set. If thecoherence of the set would be increased by abandoning the belief and perhaps by
replacing it by its opposite, the belief is not justified. If the set is more coherentwith this belief as a member rather than with any alternative, the belief is justified. The link between justification and truth here is that the increasing coherence of a belief-set is, by definition, an increase of the justification of its members, and bydefinition the unique coherent set of propositions which account for the data of experience is the sum of all truth. As one's belief set increases in coherence, one has better and better reason to think one's beliefs true. Indeed, as Dancy points out, it isdifficult to distinguish between the coherence criterion of truth and a coherence definitionof justification. The reason this is so appealing is that without the coherence account of truth thecoherence theory of justification is not obviously truth-directed. Why should an increasein the mutual explanatory relations of my beliefs be taken as a sign, even a probable sign,that my beliefs are true? On the minimal correspondence theory of truth sketched earlier,there is no obvious answer to this question. But Dancy's marriage of coherence theories of truth and justification is not without problems. In the first place, the introduction of observational control on the relevantcoherent set of beliefs seems to turn this into a version of moderate foundationalism. Theaim of thought and inquiry on this view is to start from the data of experience and to construct a set of beliefs around thosedata which will order the data in the most systematic (coherent) way. To do thiswe may need to reject some of the data, but we cannot reject them all because our very aim is to make sense of what we have as data. So the set of beliefs which wedo construct must be empirically grounded, and this grounding in the data of experience guarantees that there will be only one set which constitutes 'the mostsystematic ordering.' Again, waiving questions as to whether this really does define ‘truth' in a way that isunique, and waiving as well worries as to whether any definition which links truth sotightly to subjective perceptual data can retain the notion of truth as non-epistemic, thedescription here of the human cognitive enterprise should warm the heart of anymoderate foundationalist. The data of experience form a privileged set, and we cannotreject them all, or apparently even a very high proportion of them, since it is our goal togive an account of them. Other beliefs which help us to give a better explanatory accountof them (
inter alia
) are justified in virtue of this fact. But in this case, the privilegedstatus of the observational beliefs requires some account independent of their explanatory powers, an account of their favorable epistemic status which is separate from the notionof justification Dancy is wielding. The definition of justification as explanatorycoherence has apparently led him to a foundationalist theory of epistemic justification,and that in turn requires a notion of justification that goes beyond the bounds of thecoherence concept. 
This is a consequence which Dancy rejects. It is an advantage of the coherence theory of  justification, he claims, that it dispenses with the evidential asymmetries of foundationalism. Each belief is assessed in the same way, by considering the effect of its presenceon the coherence of the whole. So there are no restrictions on what can beappealed to in support of what. The test, as Bradley says, is system and not anyone-directional criterion of fitting the evidence. But seizing now upon Bradley's use of the term 'system' and ignoring his emphasis on the primacy of observation is rather opportunistic. Dancy continues to stress the systematicaspect of Bradley's position in his account of how a coherentist views a conflict or inconsistency within the web of belief: Equally, in the event of a difficulty there are no antecedent requirements aboutwhere revision should be made. We have no independent reason to prefer to retainhighly observational beliefs in preference to theoretical ones. The right revision isthe one that results in the most coherent new whole, but we cannot tell in advancewhat sort of revision is most likely to achieve this. . . . In practice there are notaboos on what can be appealed to in support of what and no requirements aboutwhich sorts of statements should be retained in preference to others if there is aclash. . . . In the absence of fixed points and the lack of any clues about whererevision should start, we know that at any time our belief-set is merely provisional. Revisions will be called for, and the need to revise may occur anywhere. This will indeed remove the danger of a collapse into foundationalism and the attendantdemise of the coherence notion of justification, but the price is that the coherentist nolonger has a right to appeal to observational grounding as a means for distinguishing theone relevant coherent set of propositions, membership in which constitutes truth. At best,selection of that set reflects an arbitrary preference for which no argument can be given.Once again, the coherentist is left with a set of beliefs which may very well, for all he cantell, be in splendid isolation from the way things really are. Dancy attempts to cope with this criticism by characterizing sensory beliefs as having"antecedent security" which is not justification and which consists simply in our determination to retain them in the absence of any reason to reject them. Thus, althoughour taking the deliverances of the senses as data gives a genetic asymmetry to our belief set, all justification is still a matter of "subsequent security" and foundationalism isavoided. But either this determination is a mere attitude, or it reflects nothing more thanthe additional belief that such sensory beliefs are often true, or it expresses anindependent justificatory status possessed by sensory beliefs apart from their coherencerelations to other beliefs. The third option again amounts to a form of foundationalism;the first and second both leave the idealist without an answer to the charge of arbitrariness. 

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