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Turtles All the Way Down: A critique of Infinitism and Coherentism Essay

?Epistemic Justification is an important factor in regards to the possibility of knowledge and to whether one has proper grounds for believing in some proposition of knowledge. This paper is concerned with the necessity of Epistemic Justification theories to have some sort of non-inferential clause, and seeks to make it clear that Coherentist and Infinitist theories of Epistemic Justification fail to provide a level of sufficient justification necessary to exempt Coherentism and Infitnism from epistemic skepticism.

Furthermore, this paper will argue that only if a theory has some inerrant and foundational non-inferential clause within it, is the theory properly offering sufficient and necessary Epistemic Justification. For the ease of clarifying a convoluted and easily ambiguously understood topic this paper will flow in the following manner. Starting with a clarification of the terms Epistemic Justification as well as introducing a sub-nomer term called “Dependent Justification”.

I will then outline the use of epistemic regress within the justification rationality behind the theories of Coherentism and Infinitism. The latter half of the paper will be concerned with applying the epistemic regress to the aforementioned Cohrentist and Infinitist theories, responding to a presumed rebuttal on behalf of the same theories, and finishing up with the closing arguments for the necessity of some sort of foundational approach to epistemic justification in order to escape being trapped within epistemic skepticism.

Before going further it is important to identify just what is meant by Epistemic Justification in this paper. For the sake of this paper Epistemic Justification will be focused on what I like to call lateral or “Dependent Justification”, though the importance of doxastic justification does play an important role; in this paper I will address doxastic justification as essentially being “warranted justification”.

To clarify the distinction between Warrant and Dependent Justification I propose the following. Where a Warranted Justification has to do with whether one is rationally correct about believing in a proposition P; Dependent justification has to do with the relation of one proposition being justified by a proposition that precedes it in some lateral or directional fashion. It is important to further clarify what is exactly meant by dependent justification before continuing on, which I shall do so.

In this paper the mention of dependent justification should be seen as a subset of the discussion of epistemic justification In general. Dependent justification should be seen just as its name implies as a set or coupling of, one proposition of which it is dependent, necessarily so, on some other proposition for its validity, possibility or some value to do with its existence or truth of itself. In example a causative series demonstrates a dependent justification relationship; take the following example of a shot arrow.

In the example of an archer firing a bow and arrow the proposition that the arrow was flying through the air was causatively dependent on a conceptually preceding proposition of the bowman firing the arrow. As can be shown the arrow and its proposition of being shot through the air had its justification dependent on a preceding proposition of it being fired. In more technical epistemic discussion dependent justification is a propositional requirement where P is only possible because of some other premise or premises preceding it.

One last important note regarding dependent justification is that the use of the word “preceding” does not necessarily imply a time relation where P dependent on Q came temporally earlier rather implies some sort of hierarchy of the depending and dependent propositions or premises, from here on one should assume that the paper is not dealing with temporal issues. As far as regressions go this paper is primarily concerned with the conceptual regression as mentioned by Richard Fumerton in his book Epistemology and less so with the epistemic regression.

In Fumerton’s Epistemology the use of the conceptual regression clause is used as an argument against any theory that relies on “a vicious epistemic regress. ” (Fumerton, 2006, p. 41)

And the use of the conceptual regress is also an argument for justification that requires some amount of non-inferential dependence. Fumerton illustrates the need for non-inferential justification by stating that “our understanding of inferential justification seems to presuppose an understanding of justification. ” (Fumerton, 2006, p.41) a presupposed understanding of justification puts the cart before the horse in our project of identifying just what justification is.

Fumerton points out that without non-inferential justification one would be inclined to believe that a belief for a proposition P, that has been directly inferred from some proposition Q of which is itself justified, that that person would end up in an conceptually and infinitely regressive justification tangent as one is forced to find justification for the dependent propositions, i.e. a proposition that justifies the proposition that justifies the proposition and so on ad infinitum.

In this argument of Fumerton’s a requirement needs to be attached to justification that is non-inferential so as to avoid this vicious regress. With the above clarification of dependent propositions and the reason to argue for non-inferential justification this mid-section of this paper will outline the coherentist and infinitist arguments as understood by myself.

This paper uses the traditional-coherentist approach to epistemic justification as follows. The coherentist approach to justification lies primarily in regard to relations within a set of dependently justified beliefs. For the coherentist the justification and truth of the proposition P lies in its relation to all of the other propositions of which it is dependent on, this is in contrast to foundationalism in that justification lies in the set and does not flow linearly from some basic non-justified principle.

Unlike infinitism, as will be explained, coherentism has a conceptually closed set of related propositions. Fumerton uses an example in his book Epistemology of a puzzle of which all the pieces are exactly the same shape so as to fit in any order. Fumerton continues, the instructions that come with the puzzle indicate that there is a way in which to organize the puzzle pieces to achieve a beautiful picture.

After some indeterminate time the puzzle is constructed into what appears to be a beautiful picture of a boat, clouds the sea and a rock shore. Although it is technically not certain that the puzzle has been done correctly, as all of the pieces can be put in an infinitely different but fitting pattern, the presence of the beautiful picture seems to cohere propositionally, that is the pieces cohere in such a way as to justify the belief in the completion of the puzzle, as evidenced by the picture of the boat and nature.

As with the above interpretation of Traditional-Coherentism, this paper uses the popular theory of infinitism as proposed by Peter Klein in his paper Human Knowledge and the Infinite Regress of Reasons. In contrast to coherentism Klein’s infinitism proposes a more or less linear structure of justification but one that is infinite in length. For Klein infinitism embraces what he calls ”the Principle of Avoiding Circularity” or PAC, when differentiating infinitism from coherentism.

For Klein the PAC is a simple propositional ancestry argument that negates the ability for propositions Q that ground earlier propositions P of which ground the later propositions of W, from allowing those propositions of Q to be grounded by the propositions of W, in short Klein would argue that the PAC principle requires linear dependent justification so to prevent arguments such as: “first came the chicken, then came the egg, of which the first chicken came from.

” The use of the PAC is entirely used as a way to prevent circular reasoning in epistemic justification and also necessitates the linear direction of infinitism through a structure that includes linear dependent justification. Klein sees coherentist justification is relying traditionally on the very circular reasoning that the PAC principle of Infinitism aims to prevent. (Klein) Given the clarification of the Coherentist and Infinitist papers as interpreted by myself the following portion of the paper is dedicated to demonstrating the application of the conceptual regress to the two theories respectfully.

In regards to the coherentist picture of justification the unavoidable circular reasoning makes for a slightly different conceptual regress than that of the linear infinite regression which is will be shown to more directly apply to infinitism. While the conceptual regress in the coherentist picture is not so much an infinite series of propositions in the traditional sense of the conceptual regress, there is still this conceptual regression of justification that occurs with regards to the infinite number of relational links between the cohering propositions of the coherentist set.

Where the traditional conceptual regress deals with an infinite number of propositions that are trying to justify each other linearly, in this case the regress is applied to the infinite possible connection of relations between possible finite propositions. An example of the regress can be seen in regards to the aforementioned example of the Puzzle of infinitely fitting pieces. With the puzzle the pieces can be seen as the propositions, and the way they fit together as their possible relations.

Because coherentism bases the justification of a proposition on the relation of some level of overall coherence but can only arrive at the overall coherence when the propositions are all in their cohering relation, one is led into an uncertain and infinite series of possible relations that are justified by their possible coherence, a coherence which itself is only justified when there is a justified relation.

In the case of the puzzle one has justified each individual relation between the pieces because they cohere with one another and then justifies that they cohere with one another because on the whole they cohere to make the picture of the boat and nature, this is like saying A fits B because on the whole A has to fit B for there to be a whole! The application of the conceptual regress to the justification theory of infinitism is a lot more straightforward than that of the application of the same to the theory of coherentism.

Where infinitism proposes that a proposition Q is justified if it is supported by J that is justified by being supported by S and so on, the conceptual regress is much more obvious. In this case it becomes common sense to demand to the infinitist to elucidate how we are justified in anything when all we can do is to infinitely keep checking our beliefs and the beliefs in those beliefs and so on.

For Klein the key strength of infinitism over coherentism , and one singular comparison to foundationalism, is that single propositions can be reasons in and of themselves for proceeding dependent propositions, this is unlike coherentism whose reasons for justification arise merely from the degree of coherence of a proposition’s relation to other propositions.

While this does result in infinitism avoiding the infinite conceptual regress of relations of reason that plagued the coherentist, Klein’s insistence that there are no ultimately foundational propositions/clauses (Klein) means that one inevitably is stuck traversing backwards linearly from justification to justification. Just as with the puzzle demonstrating the conceptual regress of coherentism so too does the famous annoyance of the “annoying ‘why’ child.

” Infinitism is much like this child as every reason postulated can just be asked why ad infinitum never getting to a stable reason. A supposed rebuttal by a coherentist to the application of the conceptual regress lies along the following lines. For the Coherentist the argument of conceptual regression is either not applicable to coherentism or is in general unsound. (Elgin, 2005, pp. 156-167) Catherine Elgin contends that the coherence picture is a holistic picture of justification.

By using a holistic picture it could be interpreted that the coherence theory follows the Aristotelian adage “the whole is more than the sum of its parts. ” By proposing that the whole of the coherence set of propositions has some value related to but independent of individual relations between propositions, and by also insinuating that therefore there is no strict linear progression of justification, the coherence theory is exempt from conceptual regress as the whole the picture necessitates some sort of boundaries on possible independent propositional relations.

Put simply in the view of the Puzzle as mentioned earlier, the picture of the boat and nature that came about of the Puzzles constituent pieces (propositions) being in their constructed connections (relations) results in this intuitive overarching value of the picture which finalizes or confirms the individual relations of independent propositions via this grand scheme of the whole cohering picture. While the holistic approach may offer some counter to the conceptual regress by offering up a grand scheme or overarching principle of value, this leads to a more practical problem of skeptical justification.

This problem of skeptical justification is demonstrated with mutually justified but also mutually contradictory explanations under the coherentist framework. Bertrand Russell called this problem the “Plurality Objection. ” The plurality objection contends that coherentism lacks a proper definition of coherence and also happens to impugn upon the logical necessity of the principle of non-contradiction. Without such a clear definition of coherence there may be two or more sets of mutually contradictory cohering relations occurring under the same propositions at the very same instance.

Having such a case as two contradictory explanations at the same time one is either faced with the problem either ultimately propositional justification is unverifiable being indistinguishable coherently, or is faced with the possibility that one should be doxastically skeptical as justification for a belief P can hold at the same time as a justification in a belief of not-P, with such a conclusion one is led to demand the coherentist come up with some way of identifying coherence lest we have no reason to believe our own beliefs.

The general response to the above is to appeal to an Occam’s razor schema for filtering between what is and what is not more plausible of a coherent relation. The idea behind this is that in an example of the boat puzzle it meets the Occam’s razor criterion more successfully for the puzzle to make the picture of the boat and nature more than it does to make some other allegedly coherent pictures. But the use of Occam’s razor cannot be a way of choosing epistemic justification.

As the Occam’s razor principle more or less goes by the phrase “other things being equal, a simpler explanation is better than a more complex one” one should immediately ask the coherentist how exactly he would know if other things were equal, and furthermore, as the approach is holistic and one needs the entire picture to understand the coherence of the individual propositions, how could one even know which entire picture was simpler.

It seems even with the Occam’s razor addendum the coherentist is still stuck trying to explain away an insufficient, ambiguous, vague and in the case of the problem of mutual contradictions a logically dubious theory. The infinitist response to conceptual regress is somewhat similar to that of the coherentist in that both take issue with what they see as the prevailing principle of justification.

Klein maintains in a relatively simple fashion that there is this foundationalist dogmatism that seems to dictate for the reason for something to be justified that it must be justified in some fashion that results in certainty. Klein is referring to the method of justification that goes like this “when we justify belief A by appeal to belief B and C, we have not yet shown A to be justified, we have only shown that it is justified if B and C are. ” (Klein) While this appears to be the commonly held view of dependent justification that follows a linear path, Klein thinks that this method is not really all that important.

Klein believes that for Infinitism “The answer is simply that although every proposition is only provisionally justified, that is good enough if one does not insist that reasoning settle matters once and for all. ” (Klein) For Klein this requirement of absolutely settled justifications are unnecessary and too strongly emphasized by foundationalists, it is simply not as important to solve things once and for all to believe one has finally justified a series of dependent propositions.

Klein’s response to play down the effect that conceptual regress should have on justification, is still is not sufficient enough to not warrant more clarity out of the infinitist on what is necessary for justification. Even if infinitism is a more pragmatic or practical approach to justification it then needs to give some criterion as to when one should stop requiring inferential justification for a given proposition.

Without some sort of certain guideline to tell us when to stop asking what justifies some number of propositions one has just the same grounds to keep practically investigating the reasons for any given proposition. In fact, if one wants to argue on the very strong level that infinitism is mainly a practical epistemic justification theory then one does need to give a guideline on when to stop justifying propositions less we “practically” fall into the epistemic regress of our finite lives.

Klein cannot tell us on the one hand that a non-inferential clause is not required to justify a proposition and on the other hand not lay out when in the infinite series of propositions one has reached enough to justify something! This finally brings us to the papers main point, in that for a theory to be sufficient epistemicly and practically, it must have some sort of non-inferential support to it.

It is been demonstrated that a lack of a non-inferential clause in the coherentist theory resulted in a conceptual regression of cohering relations. It has also been demonstrated that the same lack of the non-inferential clause in the linear infinitist theory results in a conceptual regression if one follows the traditional view of a justification requiring a justification, and even when not given that view, one appears to find themselves in an epistemic regress of where to draw the practical line justifying justifier’s.

Because of these problems it seems evident that a sufficient justification theory should both be practical without an epistemic regress and valid by not suffering any type of conceptual regress. In order for theory to be able to not suffer the regressions it must have some sort of non-inferential clause or foundational proposition to resist conceptual regression and also must have some sort of practically accessible attribute so as to avoid keeping justification in the mere realm of the theoretical, as well as avoiding any trap of an epistemic regress.

Far from going so far as to advocate Cartesian Foundationalism (as its theoretical and definitely practical application is limited), this paper instead is affirming that justification theories require some sort of inerrant clause on which to believe subsequent inferential justifications. One theory of justification that comes close to the above is reliablism.

Reliabilism offers a practically accessible justification approach by tying justification of one proposition to another via an empiricist focus on the reliability and historicity of the given propositions relations justifying each other. Going even further one becomes more epistemicaly stable by postulating a clause that helps ground empirical observation of historicity with a more certain principle that is strictly non-inferential.

This may include, for example, something of the sort of Alvin Plantinga’s reformed epistemology, in which skeptical arguments aside, one should have faith in one’s senses so as to believe that all inferences of empirical observation of historicity are justified at the things that delivered them are foundational. (Plantinga, 2010) With one having reliable senses and those senses justifying ones empirical observation of a propositions relation to another, one is justified that the dependent proposition is justified by the former proposition.

The main project of this paper was not so much to prove or celebrate a specific type of reliabilism, but to illustrate that non-inferential or foundational clauses have necessary places for any theory that wishes to be sufficient in epistemic justification. So far it has been demonstrated that coherentism suffers from a lack of clarity and cogency to the point of conceptual regression of propositional relations to the point of being very epistemically and logically dubious via its infinite relations and vague limitations.

It is also been demonstrated that even in a strictly practical and partially practical interpretation of infinitism one runs into an epistemic regress or conceptual regress respectfully, resulting in the theory being practically and theoretically inapplicable. And lastly though we only touched briefly upon it, there was offered some idea of how theories could capitalize on non-inferential clauses without necessarily having to rely upon them as foundational propositions, via varying forms of reliabilism.

And while of course there are difficult practical objections and probably theoretical ones as well to reliabilism this paper still stresses that the aim was to establish the necessity of non-inferential clauses for an epistemic theory of justification least one fall into the unavoidable and ultimately fatal jaws of the conceptual regress and its allies that claim those theories that lack non-inferential clauses. Works Cited Elgin, C.Z. (2005).

Non-foundationalist Epistemology: Holism, Coherence, and Tenability. Malden: Blackwell. Fumerton. (2006). Epistemology. Malden: Blackwell. Klein. (n. d. ). Human Knowledge and the Infinite Regress of Reasons. Retrieved March 15, 2012, from Philosophy and Religion Department Montclair State University: http://chss2. montclair. edu/prdept/HK. htm Plantinga, A. (2010). Reformed Epistemology. Wiley-Blackwell: Oxford.


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