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What is knowledge? If we take the dictionary definition, we see that knowledge is factual information that we have somehow acquired. But when analyzed via reduction, knowledge poses us with a problem. How can we be sure that this knowledge is not only correct, but also not just a lucky coincidence?
Assuming that the analytical description of knowledge is correct, in order for one to have knowledge, one must have justified true belief. There have been a number of theories that have approached this definition of knowledge from the angle of how one properly acquires justification. The one that I find the most intriguing is the Coherence theory of justification. Coherentism came about as an alternative view to the foundationalist theory of justification. A foundationalist?s knowledge relies on a basic, fundamental belief that is self-justifying. From this belief, other beliefs are derived in an evidential manner. A coherentist would say that justification is attained when a belief closely coincides with the rest of the beliefs in a belief system. The justification of this system is logically prior to that of its component beliefs and in the end derives from the coherence of the system, where coherence is a matter of harmony within the system among the inferentially connected beliefs. I posit that coherentism is the victor in the justification debate because of its versatility and adaptability. Several arguments made against coherentism will now be discussed.
The regress argument poses a formidable threat to coherentism. Foundationalists argue that there is a circularity to the coherence theory. Belief A is justified by B, which in turn is justified by H, which is justified by? and so on until we get back to belief A. So, when asked, ?How do you know A?? a coherentist might eventually (a great deal of other interconnected beliefs might be cited as well, but in the case of simplicity we?ll assume a cyclical regression) say, ?Because of my belief A.? How could one claim justification when the belief seeking justification is a root of justification for itself? This alone invalidates coherentism, so sayeth the foundationalists. Foundationalists avoid this problem quite easily because their chain of beliefs has a self-justifying, basement-level belief. So that when asked, ?How do you know A?? a foundationalist would eventually say, ?Because of my belief Z, which is self-justifying.? The regression would then stop right there and there is no circularity to their argument.
The sharp coherence advocate has found a way out of this sticky situation by rejecting the foundationalist?s assumption that justification must involve a linear, lop-sided order of dependence among the beliefs in question. Reduction itself is rejected in favor of a more holistic view. The beliefs in the system are mutually supportive, with none being epistemically prior to another. Thus, coherentism avoids circularity by dubbing the system itself the prime building block of justification. But just what does this mean?
This brings up another problem some find with understanding coherence theory: Precisely, just what is coherence? For starters, let?s describe the parameters of the coherence system. The system must be as free from mutually contradictory beliefs as possible. The system must be logically consistent as possible (taking into account general human fallibility and the preface paradox). It is possible that the beliefs of a logically consistent system might not be connected to each other, thus resulting in no actual support from the other beliefs in the system and the inability to reason that those beliefs would be true.
However, I posit that the sheer number of beliefs held by any person would prohibit any such false consistency. Coherence is not merely consistency, but inconsistency would be a red flag for incoherence. One view is that coherentism is a form of foundationalism that holds all beliefs to be foundational. (Audi, 1999) I would say that coherence of a system is much like a hologram. If a hologram of a rose is cut in half and then illuminated by a laser, each half will still be found to contain the entire image of the rose. Indeed, even if the halves are divided again, each snippet of film will always be found to contain a smaller but intact version of the original image. Every part of a hologram contains all the information possessed by the whole.
Now let?s see how this applies to the coherence theory. Instead of contextual information, it is justification that is the ?image? of the entire system. Therefore, justification is possessed by each member of the system, that is, if the belief is synchronous with that system. Justification is therefore distributed (unlike a hologram, it is not necessarily evenly distributed, as it is often that some beliefs will be more important than others) across the entire system. The beliefs themselves are not as important as how they match up with the rest of the picture. The more beliefs there are to support one particular belief, the greater the chance that the belief is true.
Another argument raised is ?the isolation problem.? The typical coherentist stance effectively always has an internalist quality rather than an externalist one, because it asserts that the core for epistemic justification must be cognitively within reach of the believer in question. Proponents argue that a coherence system of justification depends too much on its own coherence with itself rather than with the outside world it purports to describe. They say that any observation that a coherentist makes is second fiddle to their system of beliefs. And since coherentism would be sufficiently isolated from reality, there can be no justification and any truth in a belief would be an accident. Furthermore, they argue, if two coherent systems disagree, neither one would be able to claim that their belief were more truthful and both would be equally justified. An interesting point maybe, but easily surmountable.
This argument assumes an absolutist point of view. If I were an absolutist, it would be hard to argue with. I tend to think of coherence as occurring over a period of time. It is a process rather than some static absolute. It is a series of quasi-absolute stepping-stones. I would call it hetero-absolutism and I would place it in the vicinity of pragmatism, as a functional truth is more of a process than a fixed point of view. Therefore, even if these two coherent systems could not come to an agreement through the exchange of ideas, I do not see a conflict in this theory of coherence.
What happens when some spontaneous event occurs that splits the system of beliefs so that a decision either way as to the adoption of the new belief will contradict a large set of the beliefs currently part of the system? In other words, R is observed. If R is true, then B is false. B is supported by S, which is supported by J. Unfortunately, J supports the method of interpreting the observation of R as true. So there is a sort of paradox: if R is true, then R is false; if R is false, then R is true?
Again, I turn to hetero-absolutism for the answer. This is just one moment in time that this occurs. There is not always an answer immediately available to us. Thus, my coherence system has a little slack in it, so as to account for these paradoxes. I am not sidestepping any issues; I think that it is impossible to rid oneself completely of contradiction and internal conflict. I don?t think internal conflict is a necessary evil, in fact, I think it is a necessary asset. Internal conflict, when acknowledged, compels one to reflect and introspect.
Another objection to coherentism is one of access. This objection questions the ability of a person to remember all of their beliefs, to adequately understand the concept of coherence, and to apply the concept of coherence to their system of beliefs that will result in a precise evaluation. Again, this is another objection that assumes that a human is capable of being a pure logic machine that has a perfect memory, no subconscious (access to all memories at any time), and a yearning for the absolute. No one has a complete grasp on the first two. As for the third, there are undoubtedly many people who would argue for the existence of some supreme, infallible truth. Not me, again. And there are many others who don?t either. The rest of us deal with approximate truths everyday. And just how do we do it? With probabilities and practical success. ?Did I just hear what I think I heard? It sounded like a monster in my closet. Is it? No, well, probably not.? Maybe it was a monster, but we don?t care, as long as it doesn?t eat us. There. Goal achieved, truth has functioned, quite well.
Although the aforementioned reasons for adhering to coherentism are ample, there is one more point that nicely dovetails with coherentism. Because of its inherent adaptability, it is possible to view coherence in a pragmatic light. In a sense of corresponding to an independent reality, the viability which results from the utilization of a system of coherence suggests a high likelihood that the beliefs of that system are true. In this way, coherence can also fit quite nicely with the idea that truth is functional. (Cooksey, 2001) Although most coherentists would disagree, I am not certain that there is a necessity for an absolute, universal truth. Furthermore, with an unknowable, unspeakable truth, the focus of the ultimate is not on some tangible goal. Instead, the focus is on cognition and thought itself. Thus, there is no core set of unchanging, indubitable beliefs. The process of being a thinking, conscious entity never subsides for a moment and the mind is forced to persist in pondering this peculiar reality of existence.
* Audi, Robert, ed. The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
* Bender, John W., ed. The Current State of the Coherence Theory: Critical Essays on the epistemic theories of Keith Lehrer and Laurence BonJour, with replies. Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1989.
* Cooksey, Robert. However Calm These Waters: The Threat to Certainty in America 1880-1890. Sarasota, FL: New College, 2001.
Lehrer, Keith. The Theory of Knowledge. 2nd ed. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2000.
* Knowledge. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974.
Moser, Paul K., and Dwayne Mulder. Contemporary Approaches to Philosophy. New York: Macmillan, 1994.
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