Supplement to Hauptli's Lectures on BonJour's The Structure of Empirical Knowledge  Chapter 7

     Copyright © 2013 Bruce W. Hauptli

Chapter 7. Answers To Objections

7.1 Answers to Standard Objections (I) and (II):

Reply to the input objection:

140-142 The observation beliefs provide the requisite input.  The issue of truth-conduciveness will be addressed in Chapter 8, but the point here is that the input objection can be met by appeal to an Observation Requirement.  This requirement places an input constraint upon the coherence theorists who accept it:
-141 "the underlying idea is that any claim in the system which is not justified a priori should in principle be capable of being observationally checked, either directly or indirectly, and thereby either confirmed or refuted.  But whether or not this is so in a given system depends not only on the modes of observation available, but also on the inferential interconnectedness of the system."

-142 "...the Observation Requirement effectively guarantees that a cognitive system which satisfies it will receive at least apparent input from the world and hence that empirical justification will not depend merely on the internal relations of a static belief system; it thus provides the basic answer to objection (II)."

--Criticism: clearly, the appearance of input isn't sufficient, there must be a guarantee of input if the objection is to be met.  Does his requirement provide the former or the latter?  Note the qualification here!  What he says here is that the requirement ensures that there will be at least an apparent input from the world.  Is this sufficient?  In this regard contrast his statement here [p. 142] and the one on p. 170 (where he says the requirement provides the guarantee).  Note that a rather large opening for the skeptic seems to appear here!
-"It is important to understand clearly the status of the Observation Requirement within a coherentist position.  The need for the requirement is a priori: it a priori truth that empirical knowledge of an independent world is not possible without input from that world; and it also seems to be true a priori...that such input can only be understood in terms of something very close to Sellars's idea of token credibility which does not derive from type credibility and hence in terms of cognitively spontaneous beliefs which are justified, at least in part, in virtue of that status.  Hence, according to a coherence theory, it is an a priori truth that a cognitive system must attribute reliability to some members of the general class of cognitively spontaneous beliefs, to the extent indicated, if it is to contain empirical knowledge."
--The ‘if’ in the last sentence is, of course, a big one!

--The imposition of this requirement has the appearance of turning the coherentist into a foundationalist.  While there may be a difference, indeed a significant difference, between the way observations beliefs function and are justified by BonJour and by the foundationalist, it appears that adopting this requirement does assign a sort of epistemic priority to such beliefs!  Since it is this notion of priority which is at the core of foundationalism, it would seem as if the differences don’t resolve the problem!  BonJour might try to avoid this by claiming that it is only at the “meta-level” that the “priority” arises.  Here he could appeal to his concept of “coherence,” and the things he says about what it is and how it functions.  In his Problems of Knowledge: A Critical Introduction to Epistemology, however, Michael Williams maintains that:

when [coherentists] deny that any beliefs are epistemically privileged, they really mean any ‘first-order’ beliefs, beliefs about the world.  The criteria of coherence—which embody ‘second-order’, epistemic beliefs about what makes the beliefs in a system more likely to be true—function as the fixed points by reference to which first-order acceptance is regulated.  These epistemic beliefs thus enjoy a foundational status.  In so far as this status is assigned a priori, the coherence theory represents a rationalistic—‘top down’ as opposed to ‘bottom up’—variant of foundationalism.1 

Similarly, the a priori appeal to the observation requirement would seem to provide such a “top-down” variant of foundationalism. 

Reply to the Alternate Coherent System Objection:

144 The alternative systems must be long-run systems, since we are discussing coherence in the long-run.  Moreover, the coherence theory we are discussing considers dynamic rather than static coherence--we are concerned with the coherence of an on-going system which individuals actually accept!  Thus the alternative system will have to be dynamically coherent over the long-run.
-Background comment: we must consider the difference it makes to be primarily concerned with the justification of beliefs, on the one hand, and with the justification of changes in belief on the other.

-But is there any reason to think that there will be alternative systems of belief which will be dynamically coherent over the long-run while fulfilling the Observation Requirement? is no longer clear why this claim should be accepted, or at least why it is thought to be any more plausible in relation to a coherence theory than it is in relation to other theories of knowledge.
-146 "Instead of the claim that there will always be indefinitely many equally coherent and incompatible cognitive systems, between which a coherence theory provides no basis for decision, we have now the claim that there might possibly be two (or, an even more questionable possibility, more than two) such systems between which a coherence theory could not decide (but for which some foundationalist views might provide a basis for decision).  This is a very weak objection...."
--Criticism: in his Pyrrhonistic Reflections on Knowledge and Justification, Robert Fogelin maintains that BonJour ignores the position of Pyrrhonistic skepticism here: "as long as skepticism is in the field of competitors, one cannot argue, as BonJour here argues, that a criticism that applies equally to all theories of justification has no force against any one in particular.  I think this last point is worth insisting on because it is a common practice among defenders of one or another theory of epistemic justification to ignore the skeptical alternative their theory is intended to eliminate."2 

7.2 [Replies to] Some Further Objections:

(1&2) Reply to Criticism That His Theory Is Foundationalist In Nature:
147 (1) One version of this criticism claims that BonJour's theory assigns foundational status to his "meta-beliefs" via the Doxastic Presumption.
-147 Reply: no claim is made regarding any intrinsic or independent warrant or justification for these meta-beliefs.
(2) Another version of the criticism claims that his theory assigns foundational status to the cognitively spontaneous observation beliefs.
-Reply: while a version of weak foundationalism which allowed the cognitively spontaneous observation beliefs some degree of initial independent credibility or warrant could be structurally similar to BonJour's coherence account, he does not suppose that these beliefs have any degree of initial or independent credibility.
(3) Reply To Criticism That His Theory Isn't a Pure Coherentism:
-148-149 It is good that it isn't given the standard objections.  BonJour's goal is not to advance a coherence theory but, rather, to offer a view which avoids foundationalism's problems while resolving the regress problem.
(4) Reply To Criticism That His Response To The Alternate Systems Objection Is Inadequate:
-149-150 Given the Doxastic Presumption, we cannot simply "invent" (or imagine the existence of some) alternative system(s), some believer must actually believe the beliefs of this alternative system!  But this is not plausible.
(5) Reply To Criticism That Madmen And Brains In Vats (or victims of Cartesian deceivers) Could Have Beliefs Of The Sort That BonJour Approves Of (without these beliefs corresponding with the world):
-150-151 Persons subject to either of these maladies would, indeed, be as epistemically responsible in their beliefs as are people in what we take to be the actual [BonJourian] state of affairs.  But, he claims, these situations are without sufficient plausibility--they do not constitute a serious challenge.
--Problem: the sort of criticism from Fogelin above (in the discussion of the "alternative systems objection") is relevant here also.  BonJour's claim that various versions of skepticism are "implausible" is an inadequate response to skepticism taken as an "option" in the overall list of possible responses to the main regress problem that BonJour is supposed to be addressing.  It seems that it is only because he fails to list it as one of the options along with those he does list (arbitrary stopping point, infinite regress, coherentism, and foundationalism [cf., pp. 21-25]) that he is able to settle for such "dismissive" arguments.  In the next Chapter, however, he does endeavor a more direct response such skeptical alternatives, so we must await that discussion before finally evaluating his claim here.
(6) Reply To Criticism That No Actual Individual Engages In The Requisite Justificatory Procedures For Individual Beliefs, And No Actual Individual Has The Requisite Grasp Of Her Cognitive System:
-152 An explicit group of justificatory inferences (or of the cognitive system) is not called for.  Indeed, he is inclined to maintain that "...typical commonsensical cases of knowledge are only loose approximations of an epistemic ideal which is seldom if ever realized."
--Criticism: [again] it seems like he has ended up in skepticism here!  To say that "...typical commonsensical cases of knowledge are only loose approximations of an epistemic ideal which is seldom if ever realized," seems to leave us bereft of any understanding of what it would be like to have knowledge.

7.3 A Restatement of the Coherentist Account:

     To be empirically justified, four conditions must be satisfied:

-153 (i) "...the belief must belong to a system of beliefs which is actually held by someone....It is only...long-run coherence which provides any compelling reason for thinking that the beliefs of the system are likely to be true.  But the idea of long-run coherence is only genuinely applicable to a system of beliefs which is actually held by someone,"

-(ii) "...the system of beliefs in question must satisfy the Observation Requirement",

-154 (iii) "...the system of beliefs in question must be coherent to a high degree and more coherent that any alternative which would also satisfy the second condition", and

-(iv) "...the person must have a reflective grasp of the fact that his system of beliefs satisfies the third condition, and this reflective grasp must be, ultimately but perhaps only implicitly, the reason why he continues to accept the belief whose justification is in question.  Such a reflective grasp will rely in the final analysis on the Doxastic Presumption.  Whether the person must also have such a reflective grasp of the fact that the other conditions, especially condition two, are satisfied is less clear."  (He thinks it is not necessary.)

155 BonJour offers a justification of memory beliefs--which parallels the justification of the observation beliefs.  It is a coherentist justification which is not intended to appeal to beliefs outside of memory.

Note: (click on note number to return to text for the note)

1 Problems of Knowledge: A Critical Introduction to Epistemology, Michael Williams (N.Y.: Oxford U.P., 2001), p. 135. 

2 Robert Fogelin, Pyrrhonist Reflections on Knowledge and Justification, op. cit., p. 158. 

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