Coherence and Justification: Ted Poston’s Reason and Explanation
1. Reasons and Coherentism
The coherence view of justification is, in an important way, a dissolution of an old philosophical puzzle, the regress problem. Every inquisitive child seems to know how to get the regress of reasons going—you just ask why, and a reason is given. But reasons can be challenged, and if they are to play their role as reason for what they are given, they must survive challenges. And so more reasons are given, and more why questions may be asked yet of them. This pattern delights not only children, but skeptics, too. This is because it seems that the three options for adequate answers to why questions to proceed all seem to be empty of what complete reasons need. Clearly, reasons cannot go on to infinity. After all, as Aristotle observed, nature flees the infinite. Another option is the circle, but this instantiates the problem of begging the question. And so our model for reason-giving cannot also share the same form as a common fallacy. Finally, there is the thought that there are some self-intimating or self-evident propositions, ones from which the rest of our reasons derive their support. A foundation, as it were, a bedrock of justification. Alas, this project, too, has the problem of identifying why these, instead of those, foundations obtain, so the project of providing reasons seems far from complete, and there is the lingering puzzle of how we have could access to such important truths.
From this skeptical mire, the coherentist program arises. The problem, the coherentist points out, is that all the models for reasons that run the regress have been in error—primarily, the model of serial justification. For sure we speak our reasons one at a time, but that is only because we can say only one sentence at a time. That looks like the reasons come in serial, or linear, fashion. But this is only an illusion—they are spoken one at a time, but they function as groups, as systematic wholes. It is because we know many things that our reasons hang together. Only when we understand a wide range of things can we reason reliably in the relevant domains. And so, the regress problem is dissolved by coherentist holism—there is no chain of reasons to complete or loop around on itself or extend to the horizon. Rather, there are the beliefs and experiences we have, and they come as broad stories and packages for the context of every why question. These frameworks of beliefs and experiences in the background make the tidy linear reasons we happen to give relevant. For every domain of Why? questions, there is a framework of experiences and assumptions we must bring to bear on the question; thereby, things fit together, make sense, and amount to a whole we can understand. That’s the coherence theory.
2. Poston’s Conservative Explanationist Coherentism
Ted Poston’s new account of coherentism proceeds along two substantive lines. This is because coherentists regularly labor to answer two challenges. The first challenge is to articulate how coherence with a group of background beliefs can confer justification. It seems that it may give an exculpation for (or for others a prediction of) a subject’s commitment, that it is the kind of thing someone with those beliefs would reasonably take true under these conditions, but it doesn’t seem on its face like a justification. This is because the background beliefs themselves should be justified, otherwise the question is how they, without justification, can justify. Coherence looks at best a way justification can be transmitted or enhanced, but it does not seem to be a source or ground for justification.
The second issue is connected to the first, which is what exactly coherence is. It must be a stronger relation than mere consistency (where it is possible for all the propositions to be true), but it cannot be so strong as deductive entailment. And once we are clear as to what it is, the first question returns—how is this relation more than merely a means of transmitting already existing justification?
Poston’s program of answering these challenges is that of defending conservatism and explanationism as components of his coherentism. Poston defends a form of epistemic conservatism wherein, for propositions we survey for justification, “belief . . . confers some positive merit on the proposition” (2014: 18). So it is in believing the coherent set of propositions that a subject has the initial reason to believe any member of the coherent set. As Poston notes, “Unless the data used for coherence reasoning has some initial probability, mere coherence cannot raise the probability of the belief” (2015: 43). Coherentism works only if conservatism works. Conservatism is, at least on first impression, an implausible theory, as it seems that one could say that one’s reason for believing, say, that the cat is on the mat is that one, in fact, believes that the cat is on the mat. But Poston makes the case that the implausibility here is another illusion of reason-giving, as opposed to the state of being justified. One’s conservative reasons being unassertable (perhaps because they come as large packages or because they are hinge propositions in one’s background beliefs), is not yet a case that they aren’t reasons.
The second constructive edge of Poston’s coherentist program is his explanationist model for epistemic justification. Poston’s core claims are that all justified ampliative inference is fundamentally explanatory. Our inferential practices are not straight-rule procedures, but rather cases of plausibility-assessments of options. In order to weigh the value of the competing options, we must appeal to their explanatory virtues in light of many other things we know. Consequently, Poston holds, “the property of being a reason is a property a single proposition has only in relation to a background body of beliefs” (2015: 57).
Poston is, on analogy with Williamson-style Knowledge-First epistemologists, an Explanation-First epistemologist. Knowledge-First epistemologists hold that knowledge is a kind of cognitive simple—one does not define knowledge by breaking it down into constituent parts. Poston is an Explanation-First epistemologist; for him, explanation is a kind of cognitive simple. First, the explanation-relation is primitive in that it lacks a metaphysical analysis. Second, the cognitive state picked out by understanding “because” statements is itself also a cognitive simple. So Poston is a kind of two-ply Explanation-Firster—explanation is both metaphysically and cognitively simple. He observes that “explanation is a basic human activity” (2014: 76), one that we master prior to many of the other notions we currently try to analyze it into. Given that Poston holds that the core of epistemic justification is rooted in the comparison of explanations, there must be more features of explanation that are gradable and comparable. These are conservatism, simplicity, and explanatory power. And so, the less an explanation damages our background beliefs, the more wide-ranging the explanations it provides, and the more parsimonious and elegant it is compared to its competitors, the better the explanation. Given these tools, Poston states his Explanationist Theory of Justification (Ex-J):
S has justification for believing p if p is a member of a sufficiently virtuous explanatory system E, and e is more virtuous than any (p-relevant) competing system, E’ (2014: 90).
Poston makes the case that Ex-J is a mentalist and evidentialist view, as justification for subjects depends on what evidence they have, and what evidence they have depends on what mental states and conditions they are in. Changes in what evidence a subject has are always changes in what mental states the subject is in.
The upshot is that Poston has proposed a framework view of reasons that is a non-skeptical holist internalism. It is a form of internalism, in that Poston requires that all the contents that comprise the justification are ones internal to the subject being evaluated; it is holist, in that justification is conferred on systems; and it is non-skeptical, in that it is designed to maintain many of our ordinary commitments about the world and our sensory access to it, the progress of science, and the truths of logic as justified. Poston’s book is an exercise in coherentist epistemic optimism.
3. The Responses
Coherentism, given its dialectical position with regard to a perennial problem in philosophy, has a number of articulations posed and challenges antiposed. This is also the case with Poston’s new model—as the view is reformulated and updated, so may the challenges be.
Coherentism has regularly had the problem that alternate systems dog it from the earliest of its articulations; the commitment of having only relations between mental states being the prime feature of justification yields the spectre of those well-formed systems spinning off with nary a connection to the truths they purport to be about. Thomas Dabay poses a version of the challenge and indexes it to the sources of initial justification for Poston’s coherentism, the hinge propositions that are conservatively justified. Dabay’s challenge is a trilemma for Poston. In the face of a competing minimally virtuous system, Poston must either: (a) reassert some part of the preferred system, and thereby embrace a form of dogmatism; (b) hold that there must be some justification in addition to the conservative that favors one over the other, and thereby evacuate the conservatism; or (c) accept that one cannot hold one is superior to the other, and thereby accept skepticism.
Ian Schnee, also, challenges Poston’s conservatism. Schnee provides four lines of criticism. First, Schnee takes it that Poston’s restriction of justification for mere beliefs only to empty symmetrical evidential conditions severely reduces the number of propositions that can do the work for the conservative-coherentist program. Second, Schnee worries that Poston’s restriction seems ad hoc in a way that undercuts the motivations for the program. Poston claims that the program is evidentialist in spirit and aspiration (particularly in the case against foundationalism), but his conservatism is in conflict with evidentialism. Third, Schnee challenges Poston’s defense against the objection that the conservative view would have to accept claims of justification of the sort: “I believe that p, and my justification for it is that I believe it.” Poston’s defense is that what’s wrong about the statement is that it isn’t pragmatically appropriate, because it fails relevance. Schnee argues that this strategy is devastating, since the justification that survives, assuming that it fails relevance, is itself not connected to truth. Fourth, and finally, Schnee takes issue with Poston’s claim that his conservatism meshes with the first-person perspective on justification. Schnee charges Poston with having confused the issue of taking a subject’s perspective into consideration with taking the subject’s views about the perspective as relevant to justification.
Georgi Gardiner argues that Poston’s epistemic conservatism is in tension with his coherentism. Gardiner first argues that the view would have the implausible outcome that conservatism would let a mere belief be justified, but once, say, meager evidence comes in, the belief would then be no longer justified. Gardiner’s second argument is that Poston’s speech-act theory solution to the problem of holding one’s mere belief as justification for the belief doesn’t work for cases where the claim is merely thought, instead of asserted. Third, and finally, Gardiner challenges the idea that evidence can be both symmetrical and empty. As a consequence, Poston’s target class for conservative belief is not possible, and so of no use for a coherentist theory of justification.
Andrew Cling continues the challenges to Poston’s conservatism. Cling’s challenge is that if one is both an evidentialist in holding that justification requires that one must have evidence available and an epistemic conservative in holding that one’s beliefs come with epistemic credibility in virtue of their being believed, then one is caught in an epistemic impasse. The impasse shows that Poston, in the end, cannot claim his view is robustly anti-skeptical. Cling shows how Poston’s conservatism arises from his blocking the regress problem for justification in that Poston must deny that all justified beliefs require reasons. So Poston must deny that any epistemic evaluative difference between two subjects’ beliefs is grounded in the evidence they have. But Poston claims that his conservatism implies that, in some cases, the difference is just in the believing. This, Cling argues, makes Poston’s view not so different from a mitigated skepticism, as it seems that Poston takes it that one can be justified in believing a proposition even if, from one’s own perspective, it is not clear what makes it epistemically rational to do so.