Against Coherence: Truth, Probability, and Justification

Against Coherence: Truth, Probability, and Justification

Against Coherence: Truth, Probability, and Justification

Against Coherence: Truth, Probability, and Justification

Synopsis

It is tempting to think that, if a person's beliefs are coherent, they are also likely to be true. This truth conduciveness claim is the cornerstone of the popular coherence theory of knowledge and justification. Erik Olsson's new book is the most extensive and detailed study of coherence and probable truth to date. Setting new standards of precision and clarity, Olsson argues that the value of coherence has been widely overestimated. Provocative and readable, Against Coherence will make stimulating reading for epistemologists and anyone with a serious interest in truth.

Excerpt

Coherence has to do with the degree to which items 'hang together', 'dovetail', or 'mutually support' each other. This book is about coherence and truth, its aim being to determine whether there is any substantial connection between these two concepts. Is a system that is coherent thereby highly likely to be true? Is a system that is more coherent than another system thereby more likely to be true? These questions will be central to our endeavours.

Why should we care about coherence and truth in the first place? One reason has to do with scepticism. If we can show that our ordinary beliefs are highly likely to be true, then presumably we are justified in holding on to them. A persistent belief in the history of philosophy, one that still has distinguished adherents, is that we should be able to conclude something of this nature by inspecting the degree in which our beliefs cohere. Many take this position, I speculate, because it is perceived to be the anti-sceptic's last resort. In ascertaining the extent to which coherence can justify our beliefs 'from scratch' this book is partly a contribution to the philosophical debate over radical scepticism.

At the same time, and no less importantly, this essay is intended to be a general contribution to the probabilistic study of common sense and scientific reasoning. When we hear the same story reported twice by different sources, we are inclined to believe what is being said, even if we initially did not attach a very high credibility to each reporter taken singly. Such coherence reasoning is, in the words of an early theorist, 'immanent in all our thinking' (Ewing 1934 : 231). This essay attempts to systematize such thought processes by bringing them under one probabilistic hat, thus making possible a precise investigation of the relation between coherence and (likelihood of) truth in normal, non-sceptical contexts. There is a non-negligible unification bonus associated with this project, as it connects the study of coherence with probabilistic work in philosophy of law, philosophy of religion, and confirmation theory, not to mention the

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