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Your beliefs are much harder to justify than you think

Coherentism accepts that circular reasoning is probably the best any of us can do.

Credit: Juan Rumimpunu via Unsplash

Key Takeaways
  • Epistemic justification is the area of philosophy that asks: what counts as enough to justify a belief?
  • Coherentism is the theory that states a belief is justified insofar as it coheres or is consistent with our other beliefs.
  • It is a great theory to call out the inconsistencies of others, but it has been criticized for allowing circular reasoning.

There are many ways children can be annoying. They leave LEGO out on the carpet, they spill juice on your laptop, and they play the same songs over and over again. But one of the most infuriating tricks they play is the age-old use of, “Why?” A classic situation:

“It’s time to go to bed now.” — WHY? — “Because it’s your bedtime.” — WHY? — “Because you have to get enough sleep.” — WHY? — “Because otherwise you’ll feel sleepy tomorrow.” — WHY? — “Because children need a lot of sleep.” — WHY? — “Look, go to bed because I said so!”

And so it goes around the world. Yet some people, like philosophers, never grow out of this stage. They often fixate on the reasons that we give for things. They want to know why we believe the things we do. They want to know where we draw the line and why we say such-and-such is enough to justify a belief.

Truthfully, we all like the idea that our beliefs are justified by sound logic and argument. While we may not always know the reasons for our beliefs, we at least assume that we could defend them or find those reasons if we were called upon to do so. The problem, however, is that our beliefs might be much harder to justify than we suspected.

Waxing poetic for noetics

There is a branch of philosophy concerned specifically with how we justify our beliefs. The chief concern of “epistemic justification” is determining what counts as a good reason for believing something and how we come about those reasons. While there is a smorgasbord of different theories, one of the bigger is known as “coherentism.”

Coherentism is a view that settles for circular reasoning. It does so knowingly because the alternatives are just as bad, if not worse.

Although people like C.I. Lewis and A.C. Ewing paved the way, a philosopher named Laurence BonJour developed what is arguably the most sophisticated and comprehensive account of coherentism. Coherentism is a theory of justification which maintains that any belief is justified if and only if that belief coheres (that is, logically consistent) with one’s other beliefs. It sees beliefs as framed and nestled in a wider web of beliefs, known as our noetic structure.

For instance, the belief “rabbits are mammals” is justified if I also believe that “mammals give birth to live young,” and “rabbits give birth to live young.” Conversely, my belief that “killing animals is always wrong” would be unjustified if I also believed “shooting birds on the weekend is fine.”

Pluto still isn’t a planet

Broadly speaking, a belief is considered to be more or less justified on the basis of how far it agrees with my other beliefs. So, we might say that my belief in atoms is fairly well justified because it coheres with a whole web of interconnected beliefs about the world. However, my belief that Pluto is a planet likely has fewer connections to my noetic structure. Furthermore, “because a man from NASA said so” is a weak justification.

The reason why coherentism is so popular is that it is how most of us challenge or debate each others’ views. We try to dissuade someone from a belief by pointing out the inconsistencies in their position.

For instance, someone might say, “How can you be a vegan when you wear leather?!” Or, “You say you’re a pacifist, but you just punched that guy!” Or perhaps, “Are you sure you love him if you’re cheating on him?” Coherentism succeeds by challenging illogical or unsupported beliefs (and is referred to as “negative coherentism,” where beliefs are justified until proven guilty).

Circular reasoning is great because I said so

Coherentism is an “internalist” theory. This is only to say that a justified belief does not depend on an actual state of affairs external to the believer, for instance (from our above case), the actual existence of rabbits. It concerns only internal consistency in one’s own views.

The problem is that coherentism has been criticized on these very internalist grounds. If we can be justified in believing things based on no other authority than my own beliefs, then it allows the possibility of any outlandish beliefs. Suppose, for instance, I believed “my neighbor is an alien.” This would be justified under coherentism if I also believed “aliens live among us,” “aliens take out the trash,” and “my neighbor takes out the trash.”

More pressingly today, conspiracy theories love the fertile ground of an internalist justification system. Holocaust deniers are justified if they believe that all the “mainstream” historians are stooges or liars. Anti-vaxxers are justified if they believe “Big Pharma” and our governments are mutually out to get us. 9/11 truthers are justified if they believe Boeing 767s cannot bring down skyscrapers. Dodgy beliefs can support each other, and it is hard to see how coherentism can filter them out if an entire noetic structure is dodgy.

Learn to stop worrying and love circular reasoning

In short, coherentism is a view that settles for circular reasoning. It does so knowingly because the alternatives are just as bad, if not worse. What other grounds can we have for justifying our beliefs? At the end of the day, what can any of us say to that annoying child asking, “Why?” over and over which isn’t an exasperated, “Go to bed, already”? Where does the justifying buck actually stop?

Jonny Thomson teaches philosophy in Oxford. He runs a popular Instagram account called Mini Philosophy (@philosophyminis). His first book is Mini Philosophy: A Small Book of Big Ideas.

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