As noted in my previous post on Sellars’ problem, one option is to jettison the presupposition in my characterization of Sellars’ problem that the notion of justification (or whatever notion is thought to close the gap between true belief and knowledge) is connected with the notions of intelligibility, insight into truth, and the cognitively understood, seen, or grasped. On such an approach, it is better to characterize the cognitive machine more on the model of inputs and outputs, where the outputs are beliefs and the inputs can be whatever the particular theorist wishes to hold generates epistemic value for beliefs. Intelligibility and understanding are jettisoned, and the new language uses notions such as reliability of the mechanism, proper functioning of the system, and production by systems that get us to the truth at least most of the time.
Approaches to the problem that fall into this category include Goldmanians, Plantingites, and Sosians. These groups have a hard time explaining why the relationship between experience and belief is not completely variable as long as the varying is truth-conducive in certain specified ways (the ways that distinguish various versions of reliabilism from each other).
I’m not so interested in the problems and solutions proposed from the reliabilists here, as I am in another group of theories of foundationalist and coherentist sorts. Take coherentism first. Let the kind be that which limits the role of experience to that of belief production. It doesn’t play any role in justification, but it does play a role in producing beliefs with a special status in the system of beliefs. These beliefs, in Lehrer’s memorable phrase, are the products of the “prick of sense.” But the experiences have no content and play no role beyond identifying certain beliefs within the system as spontaneous beliefs or observational beliefs, or whatever else the theorist in question chooses to call them.
After we have the system of beliefs divided in this way into those produced by sensation and those not so produced, we have special rules that tell us when the entire system coheres. In the worst case for coherentism, the rules pay no attention to the distinction between sensory beliefs and the remainder, resulting in a theory that would produce exactly the same justificatory picture even if the role of experience had bizarrely changed so as to produce other beliefs in the same system. A more plausible story is that the special rules for coherence treat the sensory beliefs in a way different from the other beliefs.
This difference won’t help much, though, since it won’t matter which experiences cause which beliefs. All that matters is that the beliefs are sensory ones. There is no guarantee that we couldn’t vary which beliefs are the products of which experiences and get the same results, and even if this possibility could be eliminated, we could replace the experiences in question with entirely different ones or simply permute which experiences cause which beliefs, and as long as the system of beliefs stayed the same, with the same beliefs counting as sensory beliefs, we have problems. (This is precisely Plantinga’s point with the mountain climber/opera case).
So coherentism is in trouble if it doesn’t find a more substantive role for experience, substantive in the sense of finding a way to tie the nature of the experience to an appropriate belief.
What is interesting, I think, is that a version of foundationalism has the same problem. Suppose you’re a foundationalist who denies that experiences have content, but that certain beliefs are justified in part by being produced by such experiences. If experiences have no content, then the beliefs which result are not justified in virtue of some shared content with an experience. So it is not in virtue of any content of the state of it’s appearing to you that it is raining that either your belief that it is raining or your belief that it seems to you that it is raining is justified. Just as with the coherentist picture above, there is the threat that we could vary the experiences and the foundationalist would have no explanation why the sensory beliefs produced are justified in one case but not in the other.
The result of this reasoning is as follows. If we use the presupposition of Sellars’ problem in our metatheory, we carve up theories of knowledge in such a way that some versions of foundationalism and coherentism end up in the same category as reliabilism, proper functionalism, and standard virtue epistemology. Somewhat strange bedfellows, wouldn’t you think?