Source: p 272 Bottom-273 Top, Introducing Philosophy for Canadians: A Text with Integrated Readings (2011 1 ed).
Primary Source: 'Could Truth Be Coherence with a System of Beliefs?' by Uni. of Victoria Prof. James O. Young

[p 271:] The argument for this coherentism can be summarised as follows:

(P1) For a proposition to be true is for it be justifiable.
(P2) A proposition can only be justified by coherence with a system of beliefs.
[Ergo] (C) For a proposition to be true[,] is for it to be justified by coherence with a system of beliefs.

  [pp 272-273:] Another objection to the coherence theory challenges the coherentist to specify the system of beliefs with which propositions cohere. The charge is that coherentists cannot do so without contradicting their position.
[4.] A simple version of this objection, developed by Bertrand Russell, states that the coherence theory has the consequence that patent falsehoods are true. The proposition that

(3) Sir John A. MacDonald [1st Prime Minister of Canada] was a teetotaler

coheres with some set of propositions. But MacDonald was known to have drank quite a lot of alcohol in his lifetime, and accounts of his behaviour survive for us in historical records. One could write an alternative universe novel in which MacDonald never drank alcohol, yet (3) is obviously false, when faced with what is recorded in history. More generally, any proposition can be made to cohere with some set of propositions.

[5.] Russell charged that coherentists cannot respond to this objection by saying that that (3) IS false because it coheres with a set of propositions that do not correspond to reality. This would be to contradict their theory of truth, by assuming that some propositions correspond to reality

[6.] The coherentist can, however, simply say that Russell’s objection misses the mark because it mischaracterizes the coherence theory. Coherentists never said that true propositions cohere with just any set Of propositions. They cohere with a set of beliefs, of propositions held to be true.

  1. How does 6 rebut 5 (Russell's objection)? 6 only restates the Conclusion above which (I presume) Russell would have read already.

  2. Do the Coherentists rebut 4? 6 does not explain how to preclude a falsehood from being believed.

1 Answer 1


If you follow politics at all then you know that you cannot even preclude very important falsehoods being believed by large numbers of people. All epistemologists agree to this, whether coherentist or any other.

But the coherentist would urge exactly the same course of action as Russell would to prevent people from getting false beliefs out that supposed alternative universe novel.

Russell and the coherentist would both say "For heaven's sake don't believe everything you read." There are hundreds of books on MacDonald by people who knew him. There are memoirs and diaries and newspaper reports from the time, many still existing in the original copy.

Russell and the coherentist would both say if you actually care what MacDonald was like, look to those sources and weigh their plausibility -- which basically means weigh their coherence with what else you know of people and of Canada at that time.

Now, you may ask, what if all those sources disappeared and people of some future time somehow retained no records of MacDonald at all but that one novel (and suppose the book does not call itself a novel).

Note that historians of the ancient world in fact face cases like this today.

Russell and the coherentist still agree on one thing (as ancient historians today also do): one book about an otherwise unknown person, by an otherwise unknown author, is not very strong justification for any belief. Books routinely contain falsehoods for many different reasons: they are intended as fiction, they are intended to deceive, they are written by people whose own sources were not good, etc.

But finally Russell and the basic coherentist do part ways. Russell says whether you are careful or credulous, either way that book simply is false. While in fact different coherentists have offered different responses, the basic response is "okay, if you find that belief justified by coherence with your system of beliefs, then that is all that the definition of truth requires, you should take it as true." That does not mean the coherentist says that book is true, or even "true for you." Rather, just as the chemical definition of gold does not even try to say where there is gold, the coherentist definition of truth does not try to say what is true.

As to more elaborate scenarios where hundreds of of authors have joined forces with vandals to concoct vast amounts of false evidence and destroy other records, I'll quote John Stuart Mill on ethics: "There is no difficulty in proving any ethical standard whatever to work ill, if we suppose universal idiocy to be conjoined with it." The same holds for epistemology if we suppose universal deception.

Obviously the professional literature on coherence theories of truth offers more sophisticated arguments. But in short this objection to coherentism relies on an extreme case where we can all agree that people who want to accept slender evidence are likely to be misled in their conclusions. That makes it less persuasive.

  • Thank you. I effected 2 modifications: please revert if they are wrong. I should have clarified that MacDonald was the 1st Prime Minister of Canada, not the UK.
    – user8572
    Commented Jul 9, 2016 at 3:10
  • You are welcome. May I please ask whether you can please clarify The coherentist says that if someone of that time takes the book as true, then the bare definition of truth offers no objection to them.? Did you mean that the Coherentist only remains silent on whether the book is true or false?
    – user8572
    Commented Jul 9, 2016 at 5:00

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