Coherence & Confirmation: The Epistemic Limitations of the Impossibility Theorems

Kriterion - Journal of Philosophy 36 (1):83-111 (2022)
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Abstract

It is a widespread intuition that the coherence of independent reports provides a powerful reason to believe that the reports are true. Formal results by Huemer, M. 1997. “Probability and Coherence Justification.” Southern Journal of Philosophy 35: 463–72, Olsson, E. 2002. “What is the Problem of Coherence and Truth?” Journal of Philosophy XCIX : 246–72, Olsson, E. 2005. Against Coherence: Truth, Probability, and Justification. Oxford University Press., Bovens, L., and S. Hartmann. 2003. Bayesian Epistemology. Oxford University Press, prove that, under certain conditions, coherence cannot increase the probability of the target claim. These formal results, known as ‘the impossibility theorems’ have been widely discussed in the literature. They are taken to have significant epistemic upshot. In particular, they are taken to show that reports must first individually confirm the target claim before the coherence of multiple reports offers any positive confirmation. In this paper, I dispute this epistemic interpretation. The impossibility theorems are consistent with the idea that the coherence of independent reports provides a powerful reason to believe that the reports are true even if the reports do not individually confirm prior to coherence. Once we see that the formal discoveries do not have this implication, we can recover a model of coherence justification consistent with Bayesianism and these results. This paper, thus, seeks to turn the tide of the negative findings for coherence reasoning by defending coherence as a unique source of confirmation.

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Ted Poston
University of Alabama

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