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LINGUISTIX&LOGIK, Tony Marmo's blog
Monday, 11 October 2004


Coherentism and Justified Inconsistent Beliefs: A Solution

By Jonathan Kvanvig

Problems for coherentism come in two forms. The fundamental issue that coherentists have not been very successful in addressing is the problem of saying precisely what coherence involves. BonJour's account in The Structure of Empirical Knowledge is among the most detailed available, but he admits that it "is a long way from being as definitive as desirable." More recently, he has been more skeptical about the accomplishments on this score to date, writing that "the precise nature of coherence remains an unsolved problem." Recently, some hope has emerged that progress can be made on this issue, but the more pressing problem for coherentism comes in the form of objections to the view that are independent of any particular construal of the coherence relation itself. These problems are more pressing, since if these objections are correct, coherentists need not waste their time explicating the nature of coherence-the view would be false independently of these details. Among these objections are the claims that coherentism cannot account for the essential role of experience in justification (commonly termed the isolation objection), that coherentism cannot correctly explain what it is to base one's beliefs properly, and that coherentism cannot explain properly the relationship between justification and truth. My view of the matter is that none of these objections decisively undermine coherentism, but there is a one version of the problem of the relationship between justification and truth that is, to my mind, the most pressing difficulty coherentism faces. It is the problem of justified inconsistent beliefs. In a nutshell, there are cases in which our beliefs appear to be both fully rational and hence justified, and yet the contents of the beliefs are inconsistent, often knowingly inconsistent. This fact contradicts the seemingly obvious idea that a minimal requirement for coherence is logical consistency.

I will first explain the problem of justified inconsistent beliefs for coherentism, and then show how to avoid it. To anticipate my argument, the key is to note that there are distinct types of justification. There is the ordinary intuitive notion on which justification is roughly synonymous with reasonable or rational belief. Coherentists, however, are interested in the type of justification that is part of a proper account of knowledge, the kind of justification which is such that if it is ungettiered and conjoined to true belief, yields knowledge. In slogan form, I will summarize this idea as by saying that the kind of justification in question for coherentists is the kind that puts one in a position to know. I will call such justification "epistemic justification", and when I intend to talk about the more ordinary, commonplace justification that need not put one in a position to know, I will use the term `justification' without the qualifier. I will argue, in my preferred terminology, that epistemic justification cannot be identified with justification. The key to solving the problem of justified inconsistent beliefs, then, is to allow that they are possible on the ordinary intuitive notion of justification but not on the kind of justification that puts one in a position to know. The trick is to substantiate these claims and not rely simply on the claim that such a distinction can be drawn. I will do so with little more in the way of assumptions than a relatively well-understood form of internalism, something coherentists (and others) are committed to, anyway.


Posted by Tony Marmo at 00:01 BST
Updated: Monday, 11 October 2004 10:28 BST

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