Epistemology for modern Skeptics: I, Knowledge as coherence

Philosophy as a Way of Life
8 min readFeb 17, 2022
[image: is knowledge like a web of beliefs?, from webofbelief.com]

The term “skeptic” comes from the Greek skepsis, meaning inquiry. A skeptic, therefore, is simply someone who doesn’t pretend to have certain knowledge and whose attitude is one of research. We should all be skeptics in that sense. While I’ve practiced modern scientific skepticism since at least the ’90s, I’ve only recently turned to what I refer to as ethical skepticism, the kind of philosophy of life practiced by the ancient Pyrrhonists and Academic Skeptics. Increasingly, my point of reference is Cicero, whose brand of Academic Skepticism offers a high degree of intellectual freedom to make up (or change!) one’s mind about any given topic, avoiding the trap of blind ideological allegiance to a particular “school” of thought.

Yet, this is the 21st century. We can be inspired by the ancient Greco-Romans, but we can’t reasonably stop at what they said, as if the likes of Cicero had already arrived at the best possible conclusions and no more inquiry were necessary. Indeed, Cicero himself would recoil in horror from such a suggestion. Hence this three-part series on what I think are the pillars of a modern Skeptic epistemology, what in philosophy are known as coherentism, fallibilism, and probabilism (all three of which are found in embryonic form in Greco-Roman Skeptics like Carneades and Cicero). These are technical terms, and to a large extent the detailed modern academic discussions concerning them are irrelevant to people who wish to practice a given philosophy of life. So I’ll do my best to make the discussion accessible and pertinent to daily living. I hope you’ll find it useful.

Let’s start with the first pillar (in simple alphabetical order, not importance): coherentism. This is a position in epistemology that claims that a given belief is justified if it is part of a broader set, or system, of beliefs. Specifically, there are at least two components that contribute to the coherence of a set of beliefs: logical consistency and explanatory relations.

Logical consistency. We all want to be logically consistent. Well, except perhaps Walt Whitman, who famously said “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself (I am large, I contain multitudes)” (in: ‘Song of Myself,’ 1855). Outside of poetry, however, logical consistency is a pretty minimum requirement…

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Philosophy as a Way of Life

by Massimo Pigliucci. Practical philosophy, science, pseudoscience & good reasoning. Complete index of articles at https://massimopigliucci.org/essays/