Saturday, May 2, 2009

A Critique Of Coherentism and Toward A Proper Functionalist Epistemology


In the pre-modern and modern periods foundationalism was the most popular epistemological theory to address the problems arising from “the epistemic regress problem” . The epistemic regress problem is as follows: S knows P because she inferred it from X, and S knows X because she it inferred from B and on and on ad infinitum. Foundationalism offers a response to this problem by assuming skepticism to be false and by postulating a belief that is grounded, warranted, and reasonable that does not require inferences . These beliefs are non-inferential warranted; these sorts of beliefs are called foundational beliefs or properly basic beliefs . However, since the collapse of the modern project of classical foundationalism, there has been a new proposed epistemological theory that has been embraced by many postmodernists to address the epistemic regress problem. This epistemological theory is called coherentism. In this paper I will define and state the essential features of coherentism by surveying it. Then, I will offer critiques of the essential features of coherentism, and finally I will propose a contemporary alternative foundationalist theory of knowledge called proper functionalism.

What is Coherentism?

One might think that characterizing coherentism should be a relatively simply task, however this is simply not the case. As Alvin Plantinga points out when he is describing coherentism in his book Warrant: The Current Debate
“Our first problem, naturally enough, is to characterize coherentism. This problem is not wholly trivial: there is considerable confusion as to what coherentism is and no generally accepted account of the relevant coherence relations .”

It seems that what Plantinga is noting here is a difficulty to find the necessary and sufficient conditions that would characterize coherentism. I will survey and define coherentism in the following three ways: 1) by looking at how coherentism responds to the epistemic regress problem, 2) by looking at where coherentism is positioned on the internalism and externalism debate, 3) by looking the various necessary and sufficient conditions that various coherentist offer. After taking a look at 1-3 I will give the conditions that characterize an essential element to coherence theories.

(1) Coherentism and the Epistemic Regress Problem

While foundationalism tries to say that the answer to the epistemic regress problem is to posit basic beliefs, coherentism does just the opposite by rejecting the notion of proper basicality. However, just because coherentism rejects proper basicality does not commit it to holding to infinitism, which is the belief that we have an infinite amount of justified beliefs. Rather, coherentism states that only beliefs can justify other beliefs and that there are no basic or properly basic beliefs . Coherentism, on the other hand, does not necessarily endorse viciously circular arguments like this for justification: I know A on the basis of B, and I know B on the basis of C and I know C on the basis of A . The idea of most coherentisms is more holistic in orientation that is beliefs are justified by virtue of them fitting into a system of beliefs . Thus, we can at this point characterize two essential conditions of coherentism: 1) it rejects basic beliefs; 2) beliefs are justified or warranted by virtue of how well they fit in with ones system of beliefs.

(2) Coherentism and the Internalism/Externalism Debate

Before looking at whether or not coherentists are externalist or internalists I will give conditions that defines and distinguishes these two options. Externalism is the view that can be broadly characterized by these conditions:

S is warranted for her belief in a proposition p iff her belief in p was formed by some truth conductive process that does not require awareness .

In other words warrant or justification does not depend on an internal reflection, evidence that one can give, or cognitive access (although internal reflection on externalism might strengthen warrant for a belief, but it is not necessary or required for a belief to be warranted). Rather warrant depends on how the belief was formed. Internalism is the view that can be broadly characterized by these conditions:

Doxastic attitude D toward proposition p is epistemically justified for S at t iff having D toward p fits the evidence S has and is aware of at t .

In internalism, it is clear that justification depends on one’s internal reasons, evidence or grounds rather than how the belief was formed by some process that does not require awareness for it to be warranted. Internalism accepts the awareness requirement for warrant, whereas externalism rejects it.

Now that the meaning of internalism and externalism are clarified we can now ask the question: Is coherentism internalist or externalist? Epistemologists generally seem to think that coherentism is committed implicitly or explicitly internalism . In fact Plantinga goes so far as to categorize coherentism as “post-classical Chisholmian internalism .” However, it must be noted that some epistemologists disagree with the majority assessment and think that coherentism can be externalist . In order to settle this issue, argumentative ground ought to be pursued to show that coherentism entails internalism and since this issue is relevant to my critique of coherentism and not relevant to a descriptive analysis of what coherentism is, then I will deal with it in the critique of coherentism. I then conclude that most epistemologist see coherentism as being internalistic.

(3) On the Essential Conditions of Coherentism

Now we will explore the varieties of coherentism and then conclude with the essential conditions to a coherent system that all coherence theories of justification would subscribe to.

The first type of coherentism is the strong or broadly logical coherentism. This form is the oldest and there seems to be some evidence that suggest that it went back to Plato. One might argue that Plato’s view of the real could be interpreted as an absolute set of truth in which all the forms are coherent and grant unified design . After the pre-modern period Hegel, F.H. Bradley, and Blanshard have represented earlier models of the coherence theory of justification . The strong form of coherentism is very general and the necessary and sufficient conditions are as follows:

“S is justified in believing P iff P coheres with S’s system of beliefs .”
This sufficient condition for justification is just saying that all a belief has to do to be justified is be coherent in logically consistent sense. This is a very broad notion of coherence that contemporary coherentists will expand to something more than just being logically consistent.

Contemporary coherentism finds one of its best expression in Lawerance BonJour, who has developed a lot more nuanced and up to date version of coherentism . He gives five conditions of coherence:

“(1) A system of beliefs is coherent only if it is logically consistent. (2) A system of beliefs is coherent in proportion to its degree of probabilistic consistency. (3) The coherence of a system of beliefs is increased by the presence of inferential connections between its component beliefs and increased in proportion to the number and strength of such connections. (4) The coherence of a system of beliefs is diminished to the extent to which it is divided into subsystems of beliefs which are relatively unconnected to each other by inferential connections. (5) The coherence of a system of beliefs is decreased in proportion to the presence of unexplained anomalies in the believed content of the system .”

Bonjour’s criteria for justifying a belief is a lot specific than just saying mere logical coherence. Bonjour makes subtle distinctions in his theory such as belief system and subsystem. He also clarifies his picture by speaking about degrees of justification by way of the connection to other beliefs. These clarifications are helpful for having a clear and understandable epistemological system, yet they are still recognizably in the same family as the old coherentism of F.H. Bradley.

Coherentism: A General Depiction

In light of what we have gone over we have concluded that coherentism rejects basic beliefs and that beliefs can only be justified on the basis of others beliefs while not necessarily committing itself to an idea of viciously circular justifiers . Furthermore, we have seen that coherentists usually are internalists in terms of justification. Finally we have seen that coherentists believe that their beliefs are justified by virtue of them being at least logically consistent with one another and among other qualifications with respect to contemporary coherentist. Therefore, I would agree with Richard Feldman’s General Depiction of Coherentism which is as follows:

“S is justified in believing p iff the coherence value of S’s system of beliefs would be greater if it included a belief in p than it would be if it did not include that belief .”

The condition that a belief contributes to belief systems coherences more so than it would had that belief not been in the belief system seems to be a condition that all mere coherentists would embrace.

Critiques of Coherentism

I will offer my criticism of coherentism now that we understand what it purports. However, I will begin my section addressing an issue that I left hanging in my description of coherentism; this is the issue of whether or not coherentism is committed to internalism. This is important to my thesis because in order for my first two critiques of coherentism to be effective, internalism has to be an essential feature of it. I shall argue that coherentism has internalism as an essential feature by offering various arguments. Then I will offer three arguments critiquing coherentism.

Arguments that Coherentism is internalistic
The opposite of internalism is externalism and it is my contention that if coherentism tries to adopt externalism then it either leads to 1) beliefs that are not justified, 2) or foundationalism. Either 1 or 2 are clearly unacceptable and thus coherentism has to be internalistic.

Let’s take a look at the prospects of contention 1: Suppose I am reading a math book and I decide to believe all the propositions on 7th line on every page of the book . Let us further suppose after I have read the text that all my beliefs form a wonderfully coherent mathematical set of beliefs but the mathematical propositions are far to complex and deep for me to grasp or to be aware of it . I am completely lacking in awareness of the coherent relations and connections among my beliefs and thus it seems very counter intuitive to say that I am justified in believing these mathematical propositions . This counter example is effective because internalists and externalists tend to agree that internal reflection and evidence of a belief makes it more reasonable to believe (although externalists do not require it for warrant). In this case, this example completely lacks internal reason or proper function. Thus, on either view this belief is not warranted.

As for contention 2 it seems that externalism can only be accommodated within foundationalism and thus a coherentist cannot be an externalist. Externalists say that beliefs are warranted or justified by virtue of them being formed by a reliable process, by your facilities functioning properly, or by them being caused by truth indicative causal chains. If one has beliefs that sufficiently receive their warrant by virtue of beliefs being formed correctly rather than from them being in coherent relations to one another then one is no longer a coherentist at all. A externalistic coherentist would be unable to fulfill the intuitions of externalism (reliable formation) or internalism (reflection of reason). This is why only foundationalism can accommodate externalism; beliefs do not need to be coherent in order to be justified but rather only formed correctly without being aware of such.

Argument 1: Can We Ever Coherently Justify Millions of beliefs?

Coherentism sets the bar too high or impossible for any particular belief to be justified. Coherentists think that in order for a belief to be justified that belief has to give more coherence to the rest of one’s beliefs more so than not. But how many beliefs might a person have? Well it seems that a person has millions of beliefs, albeit they do not think about them all at once. For example, most people believe that 2 is greater than 1 and that 3 is greater than 2 and so on. And most people believe that there are least 2 cars in the world and at least 3 cars and on. We can do this with any number of objects and things about various objects that we believe. The point is we have millions of beliefs (although I would not go so far to say an infinite amount). If someone were to ask: why I believe a given proposition p in order for me to be justified in believing p on coherentism, I am required to demonstrate how one belief gives more coherence value to millions of beliefs. Not only is that a nearly impossible task, but it puts too high of a requirement on justification. Because coherentism puts an unreasonable standard of justification, it is an unreasonable epistemological theory.

Argument 2: Epistemological Problems about the External World

One of the strongest reasons for rejecting coherentism is that it cannot justify our beliefs about the external world, that is to say a world of physical objects not dependent on our subjective apprehension of them. Here is how the argument goes:

P1: Internalism cannot justify our beliefs about the external world

P2: Coherentism entails Internalism

C: Coherentism cannot justify our beliefs about the external world.

Out of all the premises 1 is the most contentious so I shall give some good reasons for thinking that internalism cannot provide a justification for our belief in the existence of the external world. There seems to be two ways we can know about the external world given internalism: 1) sense experience and 2) intuition. 1) There is nothing about sense experience that justifies our belief in the external world because we could have the very same sense experience if there were no external world. So for example we could be in the Matrix and, in terms of sense experience alone, we could not tell the difference between our sense experience in or outside of the Matrix with respect to the external world. 2) There is nothing about intuition alone or in conjunction with sense that would lead us to think that the external world exists. This is because there is nothing necessary about me having sense experience that would allow me to intuit that there has to be a external world because there could be a possible world W* in which I have sense experience but there is no external world . Thus, P1 is reasonable and even the leading proponent of internalism, Laurence Bonjour, grants that he presently lacks the ability to give a reason for why he believes in the external world

I have already argued for premises 2 so the conclusion follows out of logical necessity.

We are left with either picking coherentism or the belief in the external world. It is clear that I know more that there is an external world than I know that coherentism is a plausible epistemological theory. Therefore, it is more reasonable to believe that the external world exists resulting in coherentism being unreasonable.

Argument 3: The Lottery Paradox

The Lottery Paradox demonstrates that coherence is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for justification because two beliefs can be incoherent and still be justified contrary to an essential tenet of coherentism . The example of the lottery paradox is that there are four subjects competing for a lottery prize; lets designate them: K, H, C, A. In the competition there can only be one winner out of the four. So suppose you were to believe that one of them will win and another belief that it is statistically improbable that any particular individual might win given that they are facing 1 out 4 odds . Both of these beliefs seem reasonable or justified yet they are completely incoherent. As shown by the propositions below:

1: It is improbable that K wins the lottery

2: It is improbable that H wins the lottery

3: It is improbable that C wins the lottery

4: It is improbable that A wins the lottery

In conjunction with:

5: Either one of K, H, C, or A will win the lottery.

They are incoherent because of the obvious fact that you have a belief that one of the individuals will win but another belief that it is improbable that any of them should win . But it seems that we want to say that propositions 1-5 are all justified, but if this is true then one of the essential tenants of coherentism is false, namely, that beliefs have to be coherent in order for them to be justified .

An Alternative Epistemological Theory: Externalistic Foundationalism

In light of the objections above coherentism seems vastly implausible, so what epistemological theory should we hold in place of collapsed web of coherentism? We know that any form of internalistic foundationalism whether classical or moderate will be untenable because we cannot give a justification for our belief in the external world . Furthermore, it seems that I know more firmly that the external world exists more than I know that classical and moderate internalistic foundationalism is a viable theory. Thus, Alvin Plantinga’s theory Proper Functionalism, which is a moderate externalistic foundational theory of knowledge, is the most warranted fit after the collapse of the web. The necessary and jointly sufficient conditions for a belief to be warranted in proper functionalism are as Alvin Plantinga explains:

“we may say that a belief B has warrant for S if and only if the relevant segments (the segments involved in the production of B) are functioning properly in a cognitive environment sufficiently similar to that for which S’s faculties are designed; and the modules of the design plan governing the production of B are (1) aimed at truth, and (2) such that there is a high objective probability that a belief formed in accordance with those modules (in that sort of cognitive environment) is true; and the more firmly S believes B the more warranted B has for S ”

The benefits of this theory are many, contrary to coherentism. It does not rely on internal reflection, but rather on my faculties functioning properly. Thus, it does not require a nearly impossible high bar of justification. If one holds to proper functionalism they are able to say with confidence that the ordinary person knows that there is an external world, and that Bible is the word of God without her having the ability to give some abstract philosophical argument for how these two beliefs coheres with all the other millions of beliefs she has. In addition, proper functionalism does not face any insurmountable critiques such as the lottery paradox that coherentism faces. Thus, all these considerations ought to lead someone to accept proper functionalism as the most reasonable epistemological theory available.


Once we have understood coherentism I have found it is unable to account for the particulars of knowledge that I have and the only theory that seems to accommodate the articles of knowledge is proper functionalism. We have to find a theory that accommodates all the things we know and it seems to me that coherentism lacks that important condition. But we should not live in epistemic despair because it seems that proper functionalism accounts for all these things that coherentism lacks. Thus, we can be assured that heady academics as well as the average person can have knowledge about everyday life without having to speculate for hours.


Bonjour, Editor DePaul, Resurrecting Old-Fashioned Foundationalism. Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, INC., 2001.

BonJour, Laurence. The Structure of Empirical Knowledge. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1985.

Conee and Feldman. Evidentialism. Philosophical Studies, 1985.

Dancy, Jonathan. Introduction to Contemporary Epistemology. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Basil Blackwell, Inc, 1985.

Feldman, Richard. Epistemology. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc. 2003.

Fumerton, Richard. Editor Louis P. Pojman, The Theory of Knowledge Classical and Contemporary Readings; A Critique of Coherentism. Wadsworth: Thomson Learning Inc., 2003.

Plantinga, Alvin. Warrant: The Current Debate. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Plantinga, Alvin. Warrant and Proper Function. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.
Pojman, Louis P. What can we Know?: An Introduction to the Theory of Knowledge .USA: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1994.

Porter, Steven L. Restoring the Foundations of Epistemic Justification (UK: Lexington Books, 2006

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