Better, Blended Systems of Knowledge


  • For a correspondentist, judgment and opinion mark different kinds of declarations, but for a coherentist, they serve equally well to validate the virtual circle.
  • The meaning of fact, opinion, and belief differs for correspondence and coherence.
  • Both axioms must be aligned rationally to avoid contradiction or error, but there are many more ways to do this incorrectly than correctly.
  • Public declarations are necessarily correspondence ones.

You make some declaration. I nod sagely and reply, “That’s true.” In this moment my reply might have entirely different meanings depending on the mode of justification I am embracing at the moment.

Should I be at that instant a coherentist, my response would indicate that your declaration accords with my own schema of beliefs, whatever that may be composed of and however strictly I apply my own rules of the principle of non-contradiction (see “What Is the Virtual Circle?“). A second listener might find the declaration completely bogus if it fails to meet her very personalized truth test, which is precisely the same as the person with whom she disagrees. What follows that contretemps? In polite society we would all smile ruefully and change the subject, for coherentism’s flexibility also forbids any means of resolving dispute short of the exercise of power, which is a topic of great interest to postmodernists but of little comfort to those who think truth should carry its own power to resolve disputes. Granted the anonymity of the Internet, things might be less pleasant.

But if, like most of us, I can switch effortlessly to the other mode of justification, correspondence, then my assent to the truth of your statement would depend on its being provable by a preponderance of the evidence in a different kind of accord — one with the reality we all have access to. My agreement might be motivated by the memory of an article in a scientific journal I read recently, and such empirical evidence is a very strong correspondence proof indeed. Or I might have in mind the assenting testimony of someone possessing expertise in the matter you refer to who would surely agree with your statement. Perhaps we are discussing something I have repeatedly experienced and have thought deeply about, so that I might claim some competence. Or perhaps I lack these strong proofs of judgment, and consider what my father always said about the subject, so my agreement then would be prompted by his authority based on my trust in him. Least convincing would be some singular event I lived through that came to mind as you spoke, and though such undistilled experience is not very convincing, it often guides my views of truth, goodness, and beauty because it is so readily accessible (see “What Counts as Justification?”).

Now you probably do not know what motivated my reply. The true danger is that I may not know either, for most of us switch effortlessly, perhaps unconsciously, from one mode of verification to the other. Unfortunately, this ambiguity means that the simple statement, “It is true,” has entirely different meanings depending on whether at any one moment we are speaking as a coherentist or a correspondentist. As it is not possible to live purely by the lights of one justification mode or the other, it seems wise to investigate the kinds of hybrid systems that might make the best use of each mode’s strengths while always being mindful of its weaknesses in the universal human search for truth, goodness, and beauty (see “Pure, Poor Systems of Knowledge).

Let us suppose you lean toward a coherentist view, considering your own experience to be the best guide to your choices, rejecting the imposition of outside standards and rules, embracing the uniqueness of your own tastes and values.  Have you attempted to argue a point with a colleague or friend? Why? If you embrace the personalized nature of rational thought, that it derives from personal experience as an idiosyncratic and personal process rather than organizes it as a form of universal modes of consciousness, then you must also think that we each reason differently. But to argue the logic of a viewpoint is to assume a shared rational framework that might serve to universalize if not person’s experience, at least the lessons it offers. Do you drive or use a smartphone? Take medicine or visit the doctor? Then you have incorporated empirical truth into your personal schema and so accept at least some arc of correspondence science into your schema of personal truths. Did you take that car to a mechanic for service or use some web-based advice for getting the most out of that cell phone? Then you also embrace another correspondence proof of judgment: expertise, and while it is fine to reject some experts, only a true coherentist would reject the distillation of experience that forms the basis of true expertise. Of course, you can embrace each of these correspondence proofs of judgment as arcs of some personalized schema, but then you would have to ask yourself what differentiates you from a correspondentist. Appropriating these truth tests while still calling yourself a coherentist does allow you to apply them inconsistently depending on mood and preference, but that practice violates the sole truth test you claim to subscribe to: the principle of non-contradiction. Disavowing consistency means reducing language to gibberish.

Correspondence has its own set of difficulties. I will discuss the major issues regarding each of the three subjects we all make declarations about. Since determining truth is a precondition for determining goodness or beauty, my first concern will be to examine truth claims. For some of these, we must embrace coherence as the only alternative..

It is possible to make an indubitable truth claim. When asked to come up with one, many persons will respond with some simple example from mathematics. More clever persons might give a word and its definition. Two plus two equals four. A bachelor is an unmarried man. These are indeed truth claims that are categorically true. They achieve that exalted status by sleight of hand, though. Although certain, they do not qualify as knowledge, or at least correspondence knowledge, because their certainty derives from their disconnect with experience. Epistemologists call such terms analytic concepts. They are purely mental constructs established before being tarnished by any of the uncertainties of experience.  How many yards make up a football field? The rules say one hundred and so it must be. If these kinds of concepts fail to qualify as correspondence knowledge, they at least mark the goal line for those that do, though no truth claim rooted in experience can ever reach it. Any truth claim supported by correspondence truth tests should be termed a judgment to indicate our willingness to provide justification that appeals to a common reasoning faculty, like mathematical reasoning, to draw lessons from experience that must always be private. Conceptually, a judgment must be distinguished from an opinion, which is a truth claim for which we can offer no verification or whose verification derives from a coherence claim (see “Tangled Terms”). Our judgments are the kinds of claims we can support by the five proofs of judgment used to support any correspondence claim mentioned earlier. So what kinds of claims qualify as judgments as opposed to “mere” opinions? It is easy to classify some judgments: scientific hypotheses, laws, and theories that have been empirically tested. These all depend on close reasoning and carefully limited experience and are built on a deep foundation of facts, simple data of experience. The more we can bring to our judgments the more reliable they will prove. Not all judgments are so fastidious though. At some point, we make declarations supported by a single experience or the most dubious authority, and so our judgments merge seamlessly into unsubstantiated opinions, beliefs, and imaginings. Without our even noticing it, we make truth claims supported only by our private schema and, when questioned, find ourselves reacting defensively or dismissively. But why should we? That opens to a very interesting answer that I’ll return to in a moment

We might wonder where the line between judgment and opinon should be drawn. Take conceptual knowledge as an example. If correspondence requires us to point to our distillation of reality and say, “There is my proof,” to what may we point when making truth claims about any concept? Consider justice. We have a huge and weighty system in place to deliver it; two million persons in the U.S. are incarcerated for violating it; lawyers and judges develop expertise to define and extend it; and we all are required to conform our behavior to it. So it might be worthwhile to ask where in reality does it exist? What are we talking about when referencing it? How do we know what it is and isn’t? Now a coherentist “knows” that justice is whatever his experience, beliefs, and values tell him it is, but that would hardly satisfy the jurist or prisoner. The pragmatist airily dismisses the question and considers the judicial codex or cultural value system as the source of justice (see “The Problem of Moral Pragmatism”) . But the correspondentist claims that justice has real existence, is a standard that we approach yet never master (see The Foundations of the Law: an Appetizer”) even to the point of civil disobedience to the positive law we reject in favor of it (see “When Is Civil Disobedience Justified?“). Where does she search for it? Plato’s answer was that we are born with some tarnished conception of true justice like a dim memory that nags at us. Aristotle claimed that this concept, like all concepts, is the product of repeated exposure to specific instances that gradually flesh out concepts that are tested with each exposure to an instantiation of the concept. Each imperfect application produces through logical analysis a conception closer to the “true” meaning of the word as it applies to varying experience (see “Expertise“). Now this notion might appeal to the coherentist who sees his own experience as unique and personalized, except she also sees reasoning as formed by experience and therefore equally idiosyncratic, private, and closed to outside analysis. This leaves no room for a universalist and correspondence meaning of the term. So when we say a certain law is unjust, do we reference the coherence or the correspondence meaning of the concept? Or colloquially, do we mean unjust in my opinion or unjust as a universal judgment open to your critique? I would argue that concepts, like the language we invent to articulate them, are real only within the human mind that thinks about such things but also that our minds function so similarly that you and I can have productive conversations about our concepts regardless of their origins, enabling expertise as correspondence proofs of judgment concerning the nature of concepts. This position is called conceptualism, and is distinguished from nominalism, the view that only material things have reality and the poorly named realism, the notion that concepts have real objective existence in a Platonic sense. It is easily proved as an intersubjective possession of human reason by denotations of language, the unversality of mathematics, transmission of expertise as a series of rationally separable exercises of knowledge or skill, and the deep connections among scientific disciplines. Perhaps we do not intuitively think alike, but we see plentiful proof that we can if we try. It is possible to go further in that contention, to argue that human reason is not only intersubjective but also capable of true, objective knowledge of reality. We see evidence in the most sophisticated kind of rationality applied to experience: the empirical sciences. Would inventions constructed according to the predictive laws of science work otherwise? Would theoretical science that posits highly abstracted hypotheses like the Theory of Relativity be confirmed by observation if reasoning were not capable of comprehending external reality?

We also hold our beliefs to be true and at least some kinds of beliefs to be true in the same sense as tautologies are true. We think them to be certain knowledge. They may certainly be true, but they certainly are not knowledge (see “Knowledge, Trust, and Belief). Or to be accurate, they are not correspondence knowledge. Because by definition belief biases judgment with desire, it cannot qualify for publicly defensible judgments. But it can be certain, so long as one acknowledges it to be a private a coherentist conviction. Many persons will find that a slur and a slander because the beliefs they think certain are religious ones, and even in this very confused age, it makes little sense to claim a universal truth involving a deity’s will and admit it is only warranted by the private desires of the believer. This is not a new problem, but the solution only makes matters worse, for if all religions begin with belief, they cannot survive that way. They will be questioned, doubted, challenged, and reformed according to the desires of later believers until what had been a single set of beliefs becomes a tangle of private disputes. Believers repair this defect by transforming religious beliefs that are always moved by private desire into institutionalized authority, which produces public, correspondence truth claims, even if they are only warranted by belief now transferred by a grant of trust to dogma, holy text, or official who has the power to define for congregants what is true. This works well so long as no other authority lays a claim to equal or superior trust, for such an appeal cannot be reconciled by authority justifying itself. Trust is its power, and challenge must corrode trust. Besides the competing appeal requires the congregant to reassume the moral agency she has forfeited so as to renew or transfer it, and then she must appeal to other correspondence warrants or to belief, all of which are separate kinds of warrants from trust (see “The Fragility of Religious Authority”).

So corrupted has our understanding of warrant become in this postmodern age that a person may find nothing irrational in claiming her belief in an afterlife is “true to me.” What does such a truth claim signify? Does it mean that only the speaker will partake in the afterlife? Or is it more likely to mean that the speaker is making a correspondence claim (an afterlife exists in reality) with only a coherentist warrant? Can beliefs boast of any other kind ( see “Can Religious Belief Be Knowledge?) People believe all kinds of things, of course, but the proper use of the term expresses a preference that potentially corrupts the judgment necessary to determine prooof before preference can be exercised. How could reality be determined so as to structure preference if it is already warped by a preference that should properly follow rather than direct it? Though this kind of thing is impermissible for coherentist and corespondentist beliefs, it seems possible for beliefs about which no preference can be otherwise justified. The option then is to either withhold commitment or engage it. For religious beliefs, William James offered a brilliant argument in favor of commitment for those commitments that are entirely passional (see ” The Lure of The Will to Believe”). Such beliefs live at the frontier where knowledge ends. What James does not discuss is the very real temptation to make such misty stabs in the dark the basis for moral commitment, particularly public moral consensus (see “Belief in the Public Square”). This temptation is powerful today, for belief carries the power of desire into public disputes, thereby adding passion to confirmation bias and allowing the believer to disregard anomaly that might disturb her belief system. Substitute “virtual circle” for “belief” in the preceding argument to see why coherentists are in the same boat as religious zealots. Both enshrine belief, but for the postmodernist, beliefs are inevitably private while for the zealot they must be universally true.

I think it important that we mark the place separating judgments we are prepared to support from the beliefs that derive from our judgments and extend them beyond the scope of justification. For instance, it is a valid judgment to think that a creator exists. In our present state of knowledge, a creator seems logically necessary to explain the existence of creation (recent cosmology offers a counter-argument and judgment that challenges this judgment that has to be considered once fully developed). The nature of that creator seems a suitable subject for belief, but such beliefs could not assert that the creator did not enter time to create, for that would violate knowledge, but that poses just another problem for believers to adapt to.

Beliefs are the dim glow beyond the light of our knowledge, suggested by it but too speculative to be justified. Our beliefs therefore may extend our correspondentist judgments, though they are too tinged with desire to be judgments themselves and so are always coherentist. Related words like faith and hope follow the same template. The speaker who proclaims her faith as more certain than knowledge is certainly speaking the truth, provided she stipulates it to be coherence based, for within that schema of justification she may assert whatever she wishes so long as she avoids contradiction. She might also remember that differing coherence truth claims allow for no means of settling dispute and thus require her tolerance of differing beliefs and opinions, and, of course, she must also recognize as a condition of her schema that her convictions are not binding on anyone else. Some other axiom of morality is required to provide a public consensus (see “Toward a Public Morality“).

Can our emotions be said to have correspondence reality? Certainly, in one sense they can. Legal and less-than-legal drugs, alcohol, and tobacco all have psychotropic effects. In a neurological sense, emotions are merely electro-chemical reactions in the brain, available to anyone with access to an MRI or a pharmacy. In that sense, they hardly seem unique, proprietary, or some inaccessible bastion of private reality. On the other hand, their impact on our minds can neither be analyzed nor ignored. In terms of justification, they seem much more relevant as coherence warrants than as correspondence ones. The degree to which that attribution handicaps correspondence as warrant depends on how much you value and trust your emotions. Still, in the there-it-is realiity of correspondence proofs of judgment, the power of emotion is a wedge issue for coherentists. Perhaps correspondentists can respond just as a coherentist might respond to respond to her use of technology. Emotion is the coherentist arc of the correspondentist schema just as science may be the correspondence complex of truths accepted by the coherentist.

It is unlikely that a correspondentist would thoughtlessly revert to a coherence warrant. The reverse situation is, unfortunately, much more likely as a thoughtless appeal to non-contradiction from within the perceptual wall might bolster a declaration properly appealing to correspondence. All those “truths of the heart,” “gut feelings,” and premonitions likely rise into consciousness from belief and should be viewed with a degree of suspicion when they advance a truth claim about the reality we all share.  The classic example of that kind of thing is a declaration of someone’s religious claim to truth or goodness, which is clearly a claim binding on all of reality, yet one inevitably backed by purely coherentist warrants.

It seems clear that a workable justification model would find room and apportion proper value to all the ways in which we seek to know truths about ourselves and our reality and avoid self-contradiction in doing so. But wait. There’s more. For however much we celebrate truth as an imperative, we desire something else even more. All of our judgments about truth are merely the means to the end of choosing. Homo sapiens, “wise man,” seeks wisdom because he must somehow choose the good in the storm and stress of ordinary living. I use this word for now simply to mean that which we desire at the moment of choosing. That requires two different pieces of knowledge. First, we must isolate the truth as we choose to define and warrant it. Only then can we choose the good. But how can we know what that is? That question certainly deserves an answer, but it must always be preconditioned by finding truth as a means to that end (see What Do We Mean by ‘Good’?“).

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