Friday, November 19, 2010

A Query (or two) on Coherence

Two formal theories of coherence are currently available. The probabilistic views have suffered heavy criticism, partly because of their inability to capture explanatory relations, which seem to be at the heart of coherence. Thagard's model of explanatory coherence fairs better here. But it is not clear whether the coherence that Thagard describes so well is a good measure of the short-term reliability of a scientific claim. It captures well episodes in the history of science, but that could be more because of the fecundity of coherent views (which helps produce long term success) rather than short term reliability.

So, here is the query: 1) Are there any other contenders for a theory of coherence out there? and 2) Do we have any reason to think that a more coherent (however construed) view is more reliable right now?


  1. I don't have any up-to-date expertise in this area, but I'm looking forward to seeing what you come up with. I'm quite comfortable with a coherence theory of scientific knowledge, where major advances ("scientific revolutions") are the shifting of frame from one set of propositions (with which to cohere) to another (often because of the decreasing coherence of the first due to the accumulation of anomalies).

  2. A paper by Christian Strasser and me - "Epistemic Justification in the Context of Pursuit" might be relevant for this topic. I am not sure what you exactly mean by the short-term reliability, but if you have in mind a value of scientific claims for the heuristic appraisal of a theory, then our paper could be of interest.
    The paper presents an account of coherence evaluation suitable for the context of theory pursuit, where a young, developing theory might be still less coherent than its dominant rival (e.g. it could still have certain inconsistencies, explanatory anomalies, etc.). We say that such a theory is "potentially coherent" if it is promising of becoming more ("actually") coherent than its currently dominant rival.
    The problem with Thagard's approach is that he doesn't make a distinction between evaluation in the context of pursuit and the one in the context of acceptance (to use now Laudan's terminology). Thus, his discussion of scientific revolutions often remains inexplanatory (e.g. when discussing the revolution in geology, he shows that Wegener's theory was more coherent from Wegener's own perspective, while from the perspective of his opponents, it was less coherent than the fixist conceptions of geology; however, more than one theory can simultaneously be worthy of pursuit, and his framework cannot account for this possibility).
    Our paper will appear in Synthese next year, but if anyone is interested, I could send a draft version at this point. The abstract can be found here:

  3. The problem with coherence views, too often ignored in scientific circles, is that they are themselves circular. Webs are circles too!

    The correct view of the structure of science is probably the one presented by Thomas Kung, which is that there are multiple competing incomparable foundations, each replacing the other as time goes on.


  4. What do folks think about Hasok Chang's claim that "we can best make sense of scientific progress by transcending the false dichotomy and dilemma between foundationalism and coherentism"? Chang labels his alternative theory, "progressive coherentism," an attempt at an Hegalian transcendence of foundationalism and coherentist views (largely through the notion of 'epistemic iteration'), although I think it's closer in spirit if not letter to the latter than the former. Incidentally, the manner in which he formulates his "alternative" strikes me as compatible with Nicholas Rescher's coherentist and pragmatist epistemology.

    In any case, I'm amateur in these matters, but was introduced to Chang's argument in his article, "Scientific Progress: Beyond Foundationalism and Coherentism," in Anthony O'Hear, ed., Philosophy of Science (2007): 1-20.

  5. I would check in the epistemology and see if the literature on coherence theories of justification does any work. Specifically, I would look at Bonjour and Lehrer.

  6. Patrick, I think Hasok Chang's view is one of the best versions of coherentism currently available (pace the transcending talk), but I suspect it isn't quite what Heather is looking for, (1) because it isn't a formal theory, and (2) because it's not obviously very concerned with reliability (in the short term).

    In case anyone is interested, I've written about some of the background disagreement between Hasok's and Heather's approaches here:

    I don't focus on coherentism there but the underlying issue of the so-called epistemic values.

  7. Matthew,

    Thanks for clarification and the link. FWIW, I see little value in formal theories in this regard (for reasons provided by, among others, John Ziman, John D. Norton, and Ronald Giere), believing it reflects unavailing epistemic ambition and is too far removed from the practice of science by scientists.

    I have no problem with the language of "transcendence" provided it's used in the minimally mundane(!) Hegelian sense as involving both negation and sublation (not unlike, in the main, Platonic dialectic).

    Again, thanks.