Coherence Theory 


Here is another subversion of materialism that I have been overlooking.  

It stems from the problem, as partially explicated by Berkley, of representation wherein our perceptions and beliefs are supposed to represent or correspond to facts about an external world.  The inherent dualism of representationalism and its attendant correspondence theory of truth, ensure their entanglement in the Cartesian problem of the connection between mind and matter.  This problem has been a primary motivation for immaterialists and functionalists.  

Although functionalism is usually presented as a species of naturalism, its metaphysical foundations are ambiguous to non-existent, and, rather as its name implies, it is seemingly open to a philosophical pragmatism that is far from naturalism.  This is why Dennett's functionalism is eschewed by serious philosophers.  Serious naturalists are thus left to struggle with increasingly convoluted theories of representation.  

The only alternative to representationalism is some form of coherentism.  In its crudest form, coherentism could be seen as a form of associationism as found in Anglo-American empiricism.  Coherentism is a more direct descendent of Quine's semantic holism.  With a therapeutic dose of rationalism and phenomenology, the holism of Quine can be exported to the Continent where, as coherentism, it is the epistemology of choice.  The idealist and transcendental proclivities inherent in coherentism are kept in check by the Continental ambience of deconstruction.  

It is the Continental semioticians who pick up the baton for coherentism.  A break might come if the Continental semioticians connect with the Anglo-American informationalists.  Coherentism would receive an added impetus, and it would be under less deconstructive restraint.  

(I should note that epistemologists generally are being forced to turn to coherentism as the replacement for representationalism which remains entangled in its possibly intractable foundational problem, see for example: Coherence: The Price is Right.  In fact the Computational Epistemology Lab at Waterloo has a series of articles mainly on the analytic side of coherence, but some verge off into a more robust phenomenology.  Signs of creeping coherentism.) 

In our postmodern milieu, coherentism is seen mainly as a lesser evil with respect to the foundationalism of materialism or the nihilism of deconstruction.  In this negative manner, coherentism slips in the back door of postmodernism, but for how long can its natural expansionist tendency be contained?  At what point will a robust rationalism return?  The very limited coherence of existentialism and Marxism has been pretty well played out on both sides of the Atlantic.  


In recent years philosophy has experienced an increased interest in things epistemic.  I would suggest that this trend is partially in reaction to an increased scientific presence in other traditionally philosophical fields.  Epistemology appears to be less susceptible to a naturalistic deconstruction.  This is also true of ethics and aesthetics, of course, which remain active, but epistemology deals more with foundational, metaphysical issues and so it can serve as something of, at least, a defensive outpost against the prospect of a total scientific hegemony over human knowledge. 

Perhaps surprisingly, the tone of the epistemological discourse is not particularly defensive.  The continued, rather noticeable failure of AI and cognitive science to even get their feet in the epistemological door, after these many decades, is leaving the traditional epistemic community feeling relatively secure against such deconstructive encroachment.  

And what is now beginning to appear in, say, the last ten years are signs of a nascent counter-offensive.  It is, perhaps deliberately, muted, but still unmistakable to anyone who cares to observe.  I suspect that the scientific community is blissfully oblivious.  There are more than a few philosophers who are tired of being bullied by an imperial science on the one hand, and subverted by their deconstructive colleagues on the other hand.  It is fair to say that these hard-core structuralists or phenomenologists are doing some retrenching and retooling in the shelter of epistemology.  With coherentism now serving as a weapon and a rallying banner, they appear to be making forays into the wider intellectual arena. 

But, there is a major caveat.  Not many of these phenomenologists could be ignorant of the historically recent strong association of coherentism with radical idealism.  When the scientific community is finally woken from is dogmatic materialist slumber, it will be screaming bloody murder, to be perfectly candid.  I am sure that the some of these phenomenologists are being most cautious in their anticipation of this inevitable reaction.  

And yet again, this coherentism is inherently, unboundedly expansive and probably already is taking on a life of its own that will override the best discretions of its practitioners.  The thing to attend to now are signs of early reaction from the potential opposition.  One can imagine the innocence of the counter-response, 'Coherentism made me do it'! 


It is worth noting that Alvin Plantinga, a heavy-duty theistic philosopher and epistemologist, takes a dim view of coherentism, despite his being a prime contestant of foundationalism.  Let's check it out. 

I attempt to follow Scott Oliphint's critique of Plantinga.  Plantinga argues that both foundationalism and coherentism are open to skeptical attack, and most everyone agrees.  But rather than take on the skeptic, Plantinga attempts to dodge him by proposing a novel and weak argument for theistic belief.  He merely wishes to show that theism is no less warranted than certain other common beliefs, such as our belief in other minds.  Perhaps by maintaining this lower profile, the theist can be less provocative to the skeptic, and hope to get along more amicably with her atheist colleagues.  This is not quite your grandmother's theism.  Oliphint suggests instead the much more provocative presuppositional position in which God provides the only sufficient ground for both nature and reason.  God is the necessary and sufficient presupposition for any form of foundationalism or coherentism.  

OK, Scott, I'll buy that.  God serves as corner stone or cosmic glue, depending on the context.  In the postmodern context, however, I would argue that glue is more needed than stone. 


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