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Fr. 424

October 28, 2013

There are a number of conclusions to be drawn from the coherentist position, foremost among which is the following: coherentism must allow for a much more permissive standard of justification than its rival positions. Indeed, so long as the justifying worldview is internally coherent, i.e. coherent with itself, there seems to be sufficient reason in such cases to grant that the view under consideration is justified, held as it is by an individual with a sound or valid worldview. To come back again to the example given above, i.e. the belief that the earth orbits the sun, it is not hard to find a historical situation on which such a view would be unjustified, although true, in virtue of the predominant worldview at the time. For someone living some time before the Copernican revolution, the opposite belief would be put forth: the sun orbits the earth. Given the available scientific means at the time and the orthodoxy on the matter, it is completely reasonable for a given individual to have asserted such a position and for it to have been justified in terms of the background of beliefs then current. Moreover, the fact of seeing the sun rise each day and trace an orbit around the earth would only serve to justify this view further. Although fundamentally wrong, the pre-Copernican individual would be entirely justified in asserting such a belief.

If such a view could hardly be maintained in the post-Copernican era, this does not owe to the fact that each individual is working out, has worked out or will work out at some time or other the facts and formulae necessary to arrive at this conclusion, as did Copernicus. Rather, the individual of the post-Copernican era appeals to a certain set of background beliefs that are held to be justified to the extent that these matters are considered settled. In other words, a certain view has sedimented over time and come to be a standard component of the predominant worldview, such that this worldview fundamentally shapes and informs the beliefs that the individual comes to hold as well as any conclusions that she may draw, without the individual’s having to run back at each moment and justify piece by piece the constituent elements of this worldview. In the end, the specific conceptual resources to which coherentism appeals cannot help but further divorce justification from knowledge and make standards for the former more permissive than on either on the rival views.

Certainly, this broadening of the sense of justification carries with it distinct advantages. On one hand, it corresponds to the intuition that, in view of the information available to the believing individual at the time, she was right to hold the belief that she did, as well as any attendant beliefs. Indeed, this intuition is perhaps best captured in the questions: “how would she have known differently?”; “why would she have believed differently given the context?”, etc..  On the other, it encourages knowers to proceed with a certain amount of humility in holding any given belief, for, although these beliefs are most likely to be justified in terms of the worldview held by the knowers, justification stands apart more clearly from knowledge here than in foundationalism and infinitism. Justified belief is thus something of an open question, and all such beliefs are subject to revision over time in view of any new information made available and likely to significantly alter the make-up of the worldview in question.

Yet the view brings with it its own difficulties, three of which shall be enumerated here, in varying length and precision. As the first two are drawn from Pritchard, the present account shall not linger on them.  The first consists in ensuring that the circle or web of justifying beliefs is large enough to escape mere triviality. Just how large must the web be? Of how many beliefs must it be composed? Is there an order in which a minimum number of component beliefs is to be exposed? Even were one to grant these, there is still a common-sense intuition that no circle can be large enough to justify precisely because it remains a circle and thus involves some degree of triviality, however minor.

The second difficulty centers on the descriptive/prescriptive divide that coherentism invokes without answering in fully convincing fashion. If one grants that daily knowledge proceeds on a model something like that of coherentism, this leaves out entirely whether daily knowledge should proceed on such a model. Might this permissive notion of justification be holding knowledge back? To give a concrete example: would the Copernican Revolution have occurred earlier, had individuals not contented themselves with the then-contemporary web of justification rather than seeking to determine whether the then configuration of beliefs corresponded to the factual state of the world? In short, insofar as coherentism claims to conform to or describe that which individuals actually do in regards to their everyday beliefs, the question remains if individuals should proceed on this model in relation to their everyday beliefs. Why should individuals not instead opt for something else entirely?

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