An Introduction to Phenomenal Conservatism

Phenomenal Conservatism (PC) is a foundationalist theory of justification that can be applied to perception as well as the a priori. Michael Huemer formulates PC like this:

PC: If it seems to S that p, then, in the absence of defeaters, S thereby has at least some degree of justification for believing that p (Huemer 2007).

PC takes seemings to be the epistemically relevant mental states. Seemings are appearances that something is the case, such as the appearance of a desk in front of me. It seems to me that there is a desk in front of me. Seemings are propositional attitudes: it seems to S that P is the case. For it to seem to S that P, the proposition <P> must be the content of S’s seeming. But just because seemings are propositional attitudes, it doesn’t follow that they lack a phenomenology. Seemings have a feel of veridicality; they present their contents as if they were the case. In other words, seemings have assertive content. Contents that are presented to the subject assertively have a phenomenology of, for lack of a better descriptive term, truthiness.

PC is a form of internalism about justification, which is the view that justification supervenes on the mental states of the subject, or things that are epistemically accessible. To say that justification supervenes onto the mental or the accessible is to say that there cannot be a change in mental states or what is accessible without a change in justificational status. The version of PC that takes the supervenience base to be mental states without an accessibility requirement is called mentalism, and it can be seen as a form of reductionism about justification. The version of PC that takes the base to be epistemically accessible things is called accessibilism, and is a version of non-reductionism about justification. Mentalism can give a reductive analysis of justification in terms of properties of mental states, whereas accessibilism takes access to be a primitive, epistemic notion which cannot be reductively analyzed without circularity. PC can be formulated in either way, but I take it to be a hybrid because seemings are both mental states and intrinsically accessible to the subject.

PC can be construed as either weak or strong foundationalism. If it is taken to be a version of weak foundationalism, then seemings are not sufficient for fully justified beliefs based on them. Beliefs based on seemings, on this view, would have some justification, but not enough for full blown justification. Those beliefs must also be supported by other beliefs, or other epistemically relevant states. If PC is a version of strong foundationalism, then seemings are sufficient for fully justified beliefs. Beliefs based on seemings are fully justified, absent defeaters. Huemer’s version of PC can be seen as a hybrid, where some seemings may not be sufficient for full justification, while others are. The hybrid nature of Huemer’s version of PC can be seen in the, “at least some degree of justification” clause.

Justified beliefs can be defeated by various considerations. PC allows for defeat, which means that beliefs based on seemings can lose their fully justified status. For example, if I look at a pencil submerged in a glass of water, it seems to me that the pencil is bent. Lacking background knowledge about what happens when straight objects are submerged in water, I form the belief that the pencil is bent. I now have a belief that is at least partially justified. But then I pull the pencil out of the water and see that it is not actually straight. Puzzled, I search wikipedia for an explanation, and learn about what happens when pencils are submerged in water. My belief about the pencil being bent is now defeated by counter evidence.

In some future posts I will explore objections to PC, such as the problem of cognitive penetrability, the Sellarsian dilemma, and the problem of the speckled hen. I will also examine issues related to the nature of seemings, and whether seemings form a homogeneous class of mental states, or if there are distinct kinds of seemings. Finally, I will explore the connection between PC and ethical intuitionism.

Works Cited

Huemer, Michael. “Compassionate Phenomenal Conservatism.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 74.1 (2007): 30-55. Web.


Are Facts Socially Constructed?

I enjoy watching YouTube videos. The sorts of videos I usually enjoy discuss academic topics I’m interested in, like philosophy. I’m especially fond of videos that put forward ideas that are commonly regarded as radical, or even indefensible. I like the debates that those videos engender among the video-makers who discuss those topics. In the vein of being a fan of YouTube debates, I want to add my two cents to a topic that has been gaining traction within certain communities. The topic is social construction. In particular, I want to discuss a thesis put forward by Dr. Kristi Winters in several videos. Her thesis is that facts qua facts are socially constructed entities. I will put the links to the videos I reference below this post, and I will add links to the end notes that direct to the times I reference.

What are facts? There is a lot of debate in analytic philosophy about facts, such as their internal structure, their nature, and how we should represent them formally. Typical, contemporary views take facts to be true truth-bearers, obtaining states of affairs, or some kind of entity in which individual objects exemplify properties and stand in relations.[1] While there is a lot of debate going on in the literature, one thing that isn’t hotly debated is whether all facts are socially constructed. Save for various kinds of idealism,[2] most mainstream views don’t take all facts to be dependent on minds.[3] So, facts can be either mind-dependent or mind-independent.

I’ll throw out a particular view about the ontology of facts to get things rolling. What this view is meant to do is show that there are quite intuitive points of view on the nature of facts which don’t take them to be essentially socially constructed, despite Dr. Winters’ implication to the contrary.[4] I will take facts to be obtaining states of affairs. To obtain is just to be the case, or to be actual.[5] A state of affairs is a distribution of properties over individuals that (can) stand in relations to other individuals. There can be states of affairs with just one individual that exemplifies some properties, and there can be states of affairs where several individuals exemplify properties and stand in certain kinds of relations to each other.

Dr. Winters likes the example of Pluto being reclassified as a dwarf planet. She believes that this demonstrates that facts about planets are socially constructed, because whether or not something is a planet is partly dependent on the classificatory conventions adopted by astronomers, and those conventions are products of social interactions among astronomers. If they changed the classificatory conventions, facts about the number of planets would change. So, facts about the number of planets are socially constructed. I hope I am not misrepresenting Dr. Winters with this reconstruction of her argument. I will now respond to this reconstruction.

If we are going to be scientific realists, then we should think that astronomers produce theories about things that exist independently of mental activity of any sort.[6] In other words, as realists, we should think of astronomy as developing an ontology of a certain aspect of the world we inhabit, namely the realm of celestial bodies and events. What their theorizing aims to do is reveal astronomical facts, which are constituted by properties distributed over individuals.

That astronomers changed the classification convention for planets such that it now excludes Pluto is one thing. That Pluto has the properties that qualify it as a dwarf planet rather than a planet within the classification convention is not socially constructed, but rather it is a mind-independent fact. The fact that Pluto has properties (p1…pn) is not dependent on the theories that astronomers believe, or any theories at all.

Furthermore, the fact that astronomers have such classification conventions is itself not socially constructed. That fact is just the distribution of properties over individual astronomers, wherein that distribution determines or grounds those naming conventions. That astronomers accept a classification convention is a fact about astronomers, and not the content of the classification convention. So, that fact is not constructed by the social processes that determined the contents of the classification convention.

If Dr. Winters objects at this point, I must ask, if the fact that astronomers accept some classification convention is mind-dependent, then what about the fact that that fact is mind-dependent? Is that fact also mind-dependent? If so, we end up with an ascending order of mind-dependency that either terminates in some super-mind, or keeps going to infinity. Think about it, if the second-order fact about the distribution of properties over astronomers is itself mind-dependent, on whose mind does it depend? The individual astronomers taken as a collective? What about the third-order fact that the second-order fact is mind-dependent? This process can repeat to infinity, and the minds of astronomers are not capable of housing this many facts. Unless we want to formulate this as some weird argument for the existence of God based on the social construction of facts, something’s gotta give. As far as I’m concerned, what’s gotta give is the implausible idea that all facts are socially constructed.

Now, I could just be misinterpreting Dr. Winters by imputing onto her ontological commitments about facts when she’s just making claims about epistemology.[7] However, she also claims that knowledge is constructed via social processes. Knowledge decomposes on analysis into various conditions, and any mainstream analysis includes truth as a necessary condition.[8] If knowledge is constructed, then presumably what that knowledge is about must also be constructed, otherwise there isn’t much to the claim that (some) knowledge is socially constructed.

Dr. Winters also talks about Kant’s noumenal/phenomenal distinction. I’m not sure how that’s supposed to help make sense of the social construction of facts. Perhaps she is adopting transcendental idealism, and she thinks that humans have a conceptual manifold along with pure intuitions of space and time, and these shape our experience of the world. Our experience of the world expresses itself within the conceptual boundaries allowed for by our constitution. The phenomenal realm is just what we experience as it is shaped by our mental constitution, and the noumenal realm is beyond our conceptual grasp. My worry here is that this is probably false. Even if it isn’t false, there are interpretations of the phenomenal/noumenal distinction that aren’t purely epistemic. Dual aspect views and two worlds views allow for metaphysical understandings of the phenomenal realm.[9] So, it isn’t obvious that Dr. Winters, if she is embracing transcendental idealism, is skirting by any ontological commitments when she says that facts are socially constructed.

Another worry is we would need an argument for why intersubjectivity determined by shared conceptual manifolds and pure intuitions of space/time entails that we ought to embrace a social constructionist ontology of facts. Up to now, we haven’t been provided with one.

So, if some truths are constructed, we’re back into the territory of metaphysics rather than epistemology. Whether or not truth-bearers are true or false must be sensitive to how the truth-bearer-independent world is at a given time.[10] Whatever aspect of the world that true truth-bearers must be sensitive to will be socially constructed, if knowledge of those truths is itself constructed. So, this isn’t just about epistemology if we take knowledge to be socially constructed. Dr. Winters could have stayed in the realm of epistemology by constraining talk of social construction to issues of justification and warrant in various social spheres. Perhaps standards of testimony are based on social norms, and those norms bias those standards in ways that are conducive to testimonial injustices against marginalized groups. However, she did not restrict herself to the realm of justification and warrant, so she does take on ontological commitments.

What Dr. Winters ought to do is check out the literature on the ontology of facts. She can then adopt a position that allows for some facts being socially constructed, such as facts about gender and race, perhaps. I actually recommend thinking about social construction in terms of grounding and dropping talk of facts entirely. So, to be socially constructed is to be grounded in distinctive social patterns.[11] The trick, then, is uncovering which social patterns are salient when considering particular social constructs such as gender or borders.


[1] Mulligan and Correia 2013.

[2] Some forms of idealism may allow for facts that are mind-independent, such as transcendental idealism. Transcendental idealism will come up again in this post.

[3] Mind-dependence is a necessary (albeit probably not sufficient) condition for something being socially constructed.

[4] Cf. 16:43-17:06. The way she states it implies that it’s quite obvious, given a certain amount of reflection on the nature of science, that facts are constructed by the social processes embedded within the institution of science.

[5] I’m leaving questions of modality aside. Assume that I’m talking facts as things that obtain in the actual world.

[6] Dr. Winters may not accept realism, especially if she has sympathies for transcendental idealism.

[7] Cf. 21:06-23:16 for her clarification about ontology and epistemology.

[8] Setting aside the knowledge-first theorists, who presumably also take knowledge to be factive, just not subject to analysis into other concepts.

[9] Cf. Stang 2016.

[10] Besides claims about truth-bearers, but let’s set that complication aside.

[11] Schaffer 2016.

Works Cited

Mulligan, Kevin and Correia, Fabrice, “Facts”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL <>.

Schaffer, Jonathan. “Social Construction as Grounding; Or: Fundamentality for Feminists, a Reply to Barnes and Mikkola.” Philosophical Studies (2016). Web.

Stang, Nicholas F., “Kant’s Transcendental Idealism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =<>.

Dr. Winters’ Videos I Address

What Sargon of Akkad Doesn’t Know About Social Constructs
A Chat With Prof. Philip Moriarty on YouTube Atheism

Some Random Thoughts About Naturalized Moral Epistemology

Naturalized Epistemology (NE) is a movement in modern philosophy which aims to situate theorizing about knowledge, justification, warrant, and various other epistemic concepts within the realm of the empirical, alongside the natural sciences (Quine 1969). In what sense our theorizing about epistemic concepts and their application ought to be situated alongside the natural sciences is what divides various naturalized epistemologists (cf. Haack 1993). One theme that can be found among many NE theorists is the rejection of purely a priori methods in epistemology (Rysiew 2016).

In moral epistemology, some NE theorists have taken a more liberal view of the sense in which epistemology ought to be naturalized. For example, Tobin and Jaggar have developed a methodology based on case studies, which is not embedded within any particular scientific field (Tobin and Jaggar 2013a & 2013b). Rather, their methodology is broadly a posteriori and takes various lines of empirical evidence into account from many different sources (Tobin 2007 & Tobin and Jaggar 2013b). Tobin and Jaggar’s methodology is developed with the explicit aim of providing a means for resolving ethical disputes across cultures, and it deploys a set of conditions which forms of moral reasoning must meet (Tobin and Jaggar 2013a). One worry for their methodology is the possibility of higher order disagreement about both the conditions themselves and interpreting their application to particular instances of moral reasoning.

The set of conditions which Tobin and Jaggar provide for assessing forms of cross-cultural moral reasoning are: plausibility to the disputants, usability by the disputants, nonabuse of power and vulnerability by any disputant, and practical feasibility for the disputants (Tobin and Jaggar 387-389). In short, the plausibility condition has it that justified normative conclusions ought to be intelligible to disputants, the usability condition has it that disputants ought to be able to participate in utilized reasoning practices, the nonabuse condition has it that no disputant can abuse positions of power or positions of vulnerability to gain an upper hand in the dispute, and the feasibility condition has it that proposals ought to represent real possibilities for disputants (Tobin and Jaggar 387-389). Tobin and Jaggar provide reasons to believe that these adequacy conditions provide a normatively significant means for assessing forms of moral reasoning deployed in cross-cultural disputes.[1] For instance, a conclusion of an argument cannot have normative significance if it is based on reasoning biased against disputants (Tobin and Jaggar 389). Plausibility is a condition because there cannot be moral force for conclusions which disputants cannot recognize (Tobin and Jaggar 389-390). Usability is a condition because moral claims cannot be justified for those who cannot participate in the reasoning used to support them (Tobin and Jaggar 390). The nonabuse is a condition because rationality is contrasted with abuse of power (Tobin and Jaggar 390). Lastly, feasibility is based on “ought implies can.” because rationality requires that courses of prescribed action ought to represent realistic possibilities (Tobin and Jaggar 390).

A worry about disagreement arises when considering these four adequacy conditions. The conditions are not purely descriptive; they are laden with normative content. Where there is normative content, there is the possibility of disagreement about the content itself, and how the content should be interpreted and its dictates applied in various contexts. For example, the plausibility condition can be applied in ways that involve idealization or in ways that do not. If it is applied in ways that involve idealization, certain real people will be excluded from the application of the condition. Some people will be seen as too unreasonable to fall within the scope of who ought to be considered with respect to the plausibility of moral reasoning. After all, the point of idealization is to reach a consensus or convergence where it wouldn’t be feasible to do so without it. The reason it wouldn’t be feasible is there are some people who just won’t be able to see that good moral reasoning reaches conclusions with normative force that applies to them. Furthermore, idealizing the plausibility condition will probably exclude some of the other adequacy conditions, such as usability; if the reasoning process involves idealization, some disputants probably will be unable to deploy that reasoning process. If the plausibility condition is applied in a non-idealized way, on the other hand, then it seems like the problems that drive theorists to idealization will crop up. Some disputants may never see why a conclusion has the normative force it does, and they may be unable to follow the reasoning that got there.

For the feasibility condition, there will inevitably be disputes over what constitutes a real possibility, and those disputes will involve substantive moral claims about how people ought to (be able to) live their lives. Those who accept a more conservative conception of the good life will inevitably disagree with those whose conception of the good life conflicts with theirs, and those disputants will subsequently disagree over whose conception represents a real possibility. Real possibilities are those that are livable, but livability is itself open to substantive disagreement, as it concerns how we can live our lives given certain things we value.[2]

Lastly, the nonabuse condition will introduce a level of disagreement. In the case study employed in Tobin and Jagger 2013b, those at the top of the Maasai hierarchy will probably view their exercise of power in the case of coercing women and girls to partake in FGC not as abuse but as mere use. The issue is not whether they have a plausible claim to use of power in this context, but rather what constitutes abuse of power. Judgments of abuse of power are substantive normative judgments about how people ought not to exercise their power over others. There will be disagreement between disputants in these very cases over what constitutes abuse, which introduces a higher order level of moral disagreement.

Tobin and Jaggar provide an interesting and fruitful methodology for investigating forms of moral reasoning used in cross-cultural disputes, among others. A worry arises when assessing the adequacy conditions provided by Tobin and Jaggar, as these conditions are themselves value-laden, and therefore have the potential to introduce moral disagreement at the level of method. There may be ways to alleviate the possibility of higher order disagreement, however. For example, there could be paradigm cases of good moral reasoning that serve to cement proper interpretations and applications for the adequacy conditions. There could be cases where reasonable[3] people would agree that a certain course of action ought to be taken given a certain form of moral reasoning. Those cases could be instances of real world dispute resolution, which retains the spirit of naturalized epistemology, as it avoids lapsing into an a prioristic method of examining thought experiments.

End Notes

[1] Among other kinds of disputes.

[2] Most people will agree that we all value basic things such as survival and all that requires. But there will inevitably be disputes once the basic requirements for survival are met.

[3] Reasonable in the non-technical sense of being sensitive to relevant reasons in discussions.

Works Cited

Haack, Susan. “The Two Faces of Quine’s Naturalism.” Synthese 94.3 (1993): 335-56. Web.

Jaggar, Alison M., and Theresa W. Tobin. “Naturalizing Moral Justification: Rethinking the Method of Moral Epistemology.” Metaphilosophy 44.4 (2013b): 409-39. Web.

Jaggar, Alison M., and Theresa W. Tobin. “Situating Moral Justification: Rethinking the Mission of Moral Epistemology.” Metaphilosophy 44.4 (2013a): 383-408. Web.

Rysiew, Patrick, “Naturalism in Epistemology”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.

Tobin, Theresa W. “On Their Own Ground: Strategies of Resistance for Sunni Muslim Women.” Hypatia 22.3 (2007): 152-74. Web.

Quine, W. V. Ontological Relativity, and Other Essays. New York: Columbia UP, 1969. Print.


Some Thoughts on Discourse Ethics and Criminal Justice

Discourse Ethics is a proceduralist theory of ethical reasoning that is in the tradition of critical theory and the Frankfurt School. Jürgen Habermas is perhaps the most famous proponent of Discourse Ethics (DE) in the literature. Habermas aims to provide a procedure by which participants in moral discourse can come to an agreement as to what ought to be done in situations of moral disagreement. While DE has noble intentions, it fails to provide a sufficient procedure for moral discourse due to a faulty distinction made by Habermas between the ethical and moral realms (Jaggar and Tobin 2013). DE also fails to take into account the heterogeneity of experiences rooted in oppression (Thomas 1998).

The deficiencies of DE are well explored with respect to cultural differences and similarities (Jaggar and Tobin 2013). However, an unexplored area of deficiency is within particular cultures, rather than intercultural. There are institutions within which the actors in various roles cannot enter into anything resembling an ideal speech situation without losing their respective statuses as actors in those roles. I will explore the institution of penitentiaries in relation to DE, and see if it can provide a framework for viable moral interactions between staff (officers etc.) and inmates. The strength of this approach lies in the fact that it can grant Habermas’ distinction between the ethical and the moral realms, since issues of criminal justice fall squarely on the side of universal principles of justice, rather than questions about the good life.

Habermas’ variant of DE will encounter a dilemma when it is applied to issues of criminal justice, particularly those issues about relations between corrections officers and inmates. The dilemma is: (i) if the ideal speech situation abstracts away from the fact that a participant is an inmate (or corrections officer), then issues of justice for criminals (and the accused) cannot arise on Habermas’s view, or (ii) if the ideal speech situation does not abstract away the fact that a participant is an inmate (and/or corrections officer), then an ineliminable element of power and domination arises, which violates the spirit of the ideal speech situation.

The first horn (i) of the dilemma is problematic for Habermas, because questions of how we ought to treat inmates and the accused  are quite obviously questions of justice, and not of the good life. So, if we abstract away from the fact that some of the participants in moral argumentation are in the role of inmates, then we remove the perspective of those who are necessarily powerless in relation to officers and staff. It could be argued that by removing that perspective, we not only remove the needs and interests of a distinct class of powerless people from the discussion, but we also violate epistemic norms by virtue of assuming that the perspective of an inmate is a mere contingency that does not determine their identity, and as such it can be removed from the discussion when assessing our criminal justice system (Thomas 1998). If, as advocates of DE maintain, the procedure must be applied in real world situations, rather than as a thought experiment, then abstracting away from facts about the situated identities of inmates would not be feasible if moral discourse ought to include issues of criminal justice and how inmates and the accused are treated within penitentiaries (cf. Jaggar and Tobin 392; Habermas 1990).

The second horn (ii) is probably worse for DE, as it would introduce an element of power and domination that isn’t easily eliminated. Power disparities between disputants in an argument can be exploited in ways that those in positions of power may not even be fully aware of (Jaggar and Tobin 388). An inmate, whether guilty or presumed innocent, is in a position of subordination to a class of employees of the institution in which she is housed. Corrections officers have certain powers over inmates, such as the ability to employ pain as a means of control when an inmate refuses to follow orders. Powers such as the ability to coerce through pain (along with legal justification & various signifiers of authority) constitute the role of a corrections officer in the context of a penitentiary. Various obligations generated by one’s position within the institution (along with signifiers of subordination) constitute the role of an inmate within that same context. One cannot abstract away facts about power and subordination without abstracting away the roles themselves. So, an ineliminable element of power and domination/subordination remains in any interaction between inmates and corrections officers. There is no way to escape the power disparity unless one removes the roles entirely, which would be to embrace the first horn (i).

The problematic aspect of (ii) is made more salient by considering what it means to be in custody. A common-sense analysis of this notion involves a certain class of people (corrections officers) having absolute authority over you in certain respects, such as determining where and when you can move, (in some cases) when you can speak and eat, and with whom you can communicate. Inmates have no ability to legally override this authority, and any attempt at insubordination is grounds for (allegedly) legitimate punishment. The very power disparity here between two class of people, whose lives are so intimately bound together, seems to present a problem for attempts at even coming close to an ideal speech situation.

So, it appears as if Habermas’ DE is caught in a dilemma. One horn ends up neglecting a class of persons and their needs/interests, as well as doing epistemic violence to them by virtue of ignoring their unique perspective on social reality. The other horn does not neglect anybody, but it allows a problematic element of power and domination/subordination into a situation that is supposed to replicate (as closely as possible) a situation in which parties to a dispute are on an equal playing field. As far as I can tell, the only way out is to embrace the second horn and hope for a convincing story about possible mechanisms by which we could minimize the impact of the power disparity between inmates and their jailers. However, even such mechanisms can probably never completely eliminate or sufficiently minimize the impact of such disparities. So, we ought to be skeptical about DE’s applicability to real world ethical problems.


Works Cited

Habermas, Jürgen. Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1990. Web.

Jaggar, Alison M., and Theresa W. Tobin. “Situating Moral Justification: Rethinking the Mission of Moral Epistemology.” Metaphilosophy 44.4 (2013): 383-408. Web.

Thomas, Laurence (1993). Moral deference. Philosophical Forum 24 (1-3): 232-250. Web.


Is Skepticism About Reasons Possible?

There are various forms of skepticism, and they tend to come in local and global varieties. A local form of skepticism could be skepticism about intuitions that favor deontological moral judgments, which is endorsed by Peter Singer, among others. Global skepticism could be about all assertions about the external world (besides assertions about our epistemic relations to it or lack thereof). In this post, I will explore global skepticism about reasons.

Reasons, broadly construed, are just things that count in favor of some course of action or other. The fact that taking Advil will relieve my headache is a reason to take the Advil, because that fact counts in favor of the course of action of taking the medication. The fact that my new colleague told me her name is Erika is a reason for me to believe that her name is Erika, because that fact counts in favor of forming that belief. The fact that calling a friend a slur will hurt your friend is a reason to refrain from calling them a slur, etc. The ‘counting in favor of’ relation is most likely primitive. Any attempt to pull the concept apart into constituent parts leads back into a cluster of inter-defined concepts, such as ‘reason’.

Global skepticism about reasons (GSR) is the thesis that either there are no reasons (nihilism) or nobody is justified in considering anything to be a reason for some course of action. The differences between the disjuncts are immaterial to the point of this post, so I will just use “GSR” to refer to the disjunction rather than either disjunct in particular.

The reasons skeptic presents the non-skeptical realist about reasons with a challenge, as does any skeptic about any domain of alleged knowledge. The skeptic will present a far-fetched scenario in which a subject has access to the same evidence she has in the actual world, yet the subject is massively deceived in some way. The skeptic will then require the realist to provide ways of ruling out that scenario, otherwise the realist cannot demonstrate that she is not in that scenario herself (anti-skeptics have also attempted to show that the form of the skeptic’s challenge is somehow incoherent, or self defeating in some way). The general argument is topic neutral, and probably can be applied to any body of alleged knowledge.

When it comes to GSR, however, there is a problem. The skeptic about reasons is presenting the realist about reasons with a challenge, thus inviting her to enter into a dialectic. Entering into a dialectic is entering into a reason-giving situation; the skeptic will present her reasons for thinking skepticism is true, and the realist will present her reasons for thinking skepticism is false, then the skeptic will reply to the realist, and the realist will reply to the skeptic, etc. The issue should have become apparent already; the skeptic is claiming to have reasons to believe that we are not in a position to know that we have any reasons for anything (or there are no reasons at all). This is akin to providing an a priori argument against a priori justification/knowledge. What the skeptic is doing is engaging in a self-defeating intellectual enterprise, since she is attempting to provide reasons to think that we have no reason to believe in reasons.

The upshot of all of this is that one cannot provide a skeptical argument against reasons in general, since the entire enterprise presupposes that we have at least some reasons to believe some things. Global skepticism about reasons is necessarily self-defeating, due to the structure of skeptical challenges and the nature of dialectics. At best, one can provide skeptical arguments for reasons about certain things, such as reasons to be moral, or reasons to believe that induction is a reliable way of obtaining knowledge. But one cannot provide a skeptical argument against reasons as such. Denying that we have any reasons at all is tantamount to intellectual suicide.

An Argument Against Moral Intuitionism

Moral intuitionism is usually characterized as the thesis that we have non-inferential moral knowledge. Any epistemological theory that posits non-inferential knowledge is a form of foundationalism, so moral intuitionism is a form of foundationalism. The thesis is usually accompanied by a description of the faculty of moral intuition. Sometimes moral intuition is considered a faculty of judgment that produces non-inferentially justified/warranted moral beliefs, some of which are true. Another characterization of moral intuition is as a special faculty of moral perception, analogous to vision (how far that analogy can be pushed depends on who you ask). All of these ways of describing moral intuition have their respective strengths and weaknesses, which is a topic for another time. In this post, I’m going to present an argument against moral intuitionism that does not assume any robust account of the faculty of moral intuition. All that is assumed for the sake of this argument regarding intuitionism is that it is a form of foundationalism; whether it’s internalist or externalist is immaterial to the thrust of the argument.

Now for the argument: There appear to be good reasons to think that our moral beliefs are formed under less-than epistemically appropriate conditions. Moral belief formation is supposedly subject to various cognitive biases and emotional influences. These various psychological phenomena, compounded by facts such as massive moral disagreement among seemingly rational people present us with good reason to think that many of our moral beliefs are probably false, or at the very least, unjustified/unwarranted.

Assuming that there is good evidence of these cognitive biases and emotional influences coming out of psychology and cognitive science, the moral intuitionist is presented with a dilemma. She is presented with a defeater for her moral beliefs in the form of evidence of the unreliable conditions under which they are formed. Either she can defeat this defeater or she cannot. If she cannot defeat the defeater, then she does not have non-inferential moral knowledge, which means some form of moral skepticism is true. If she attempts to defeat the defeater, then she must provide good reasons to think that her moral beliefs are formed under conditions conducive to their reliability. Let’s say she succeeds at defeating the defeater, and has given good reasons to think her moral beliefs are reliably formed. She has now provided a justificatory basis for her moral beliefs that renders her moral justification inferential. So, she does not have non-inferentially justified/warranted moral beliefs, but rather her moral beliefs are inferentially justified. So, either moral skepticism is the case or moral justification is inferential.

The intuitionist appears to be backed into a corner. However, things aren’t as they seem; she has two ways to resist the dilemma. The first way to avoid the conclusion is by challenging the principle that the defeater defeater must come in the form of evidence of the reliability of moral belief formation. Perhaps the defeater defeater could be evidence that moral belief formation is not influenced by the cognitive biases and emotional influences mentioned above. Note that that evidence is not evidence for the reliability of moral belief formation, but merely evidence against the case for their unreliability; so, the intuitionist using this strategy isn’t committed to the no non-inferential moral knowledge horn of the dilemma.

The second way to avoid the dilemma is by allowing for epistemically overdetermined beliefs; such beliefs gain justification/warrant from non-inferential and inferential sources. The intuitionist can allow for a defeater defeater that generates inferentially justified/warranted moral beliefs, while also claiming that such a defeater defeater restored non-inferential justification/warrant as well.

One may wonder what part the internalism/externalism distinction plays in this discussion. The argument appears to be neutral about whether or not justification/warrant/knowledge is extended. Even if some sort of reliabilism is true, the alleged evidence from psychology and cognitive science presents a potential defeater to one’s moral beliefs. So, it really doesn’t matter if one adopts internalism or externalism about moral knowledge.


Further Reading:

For some of the alleged evidence against moral intuitionism and various formulations of the argument presented above, see Walter Sinnott-Armstrong’s book Moral Skepticisms, and his papers, An Empirical Challenge to Moral Intuitionism, Framing Moral Intuitions, and Moral Intuitionism Meets Moral Psychology.

For a more developed response to Armstrong’s argument along the lines of the critiques I explored above, see Moral Intuitionism Defeated? by Nathan Ballantyne and Joshua Thurow.


An Introduction to the Is-Ought Problem

Of all the dialectical bludgeons, the alleged inferential gap between “ought” and “is” is ubiquitous. The thesis is used to rebut numerous normative claims, but few in popular circles are aware of its pedigree, and because of that, they’re prone to misunderstanding its significance and meaning. Usually, those who employ the is-ought problem in its orthodox guise don’t realize that it’s a double edged sword. If the thesis is true, its undermining effects do not discriminate.

Historical Background:

The is-ought problem can be traced back to A Treatise on Human Nature. There are several interpretations of Hume’s words, and some others will be investigated in future posts, but for now the dominant 20th century interpretation will be explored. The passage in which the is-ought problem makes its appearance goes as follow,

“In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. But as authors do not commonly use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend it to the readers; and am persuaded, that this small attention would subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceived by reason” (Hume 302).

The orthodox interpretation is that Hume believes that no evaluative judgment may be the conclusion of a valid deductive argument that only has non-evaluative premises. For any set of descriptive or factual premises, no evaluative conclusion can follow without additional evaluative premises or some inferential rule that is essentially evaluative in content. Another way of putting the thesis is that there is no rule of deductive inference that licenses the move from factual or descriptive premises to evaluative conclusions.

The dominant interpretation of the 20th century aligns Hume’s is-ought thesis with non-cognitivism. Since evaluative claims are distinct in kind (“ought”) from factual/descriptive claims (“is”), it seems natural to embrace some form of non-cognitivism. Statements of fact are truth evaluable, whereas other kinds of utterances don’t seem to be. Examples of such utterances are expressions of fright, such as screaming, and expressions of pain, such as saying “ouch” and groaning. These utterances express non-cognitive attitudes through such phrases or noises. The attitudes are distinct from propositional attitudes due to the fact that the latter are truth-conducive (your beliefs may be true or false).

The orthodox interpreters tend to point to Hume’s motivation arguments to establish the non-cognitivist reading. Given Hume’s non-cognitivism being established by such arguments, the standard reading of the is-ought problem makes more sense; it would just be an entailment of Hume’s anti-rationalism about morality.

A brief statement of the more well known argument is that reason alone cannot motivate action (given the soundness of Hume’s first anti-rationalist argument), but morality can, so morality cannot be grounded in reason alone (Cohon 2010). If the dominant 20th century interpretation of Hume is correct, then this argument aimed to establish some form of non-cognitivism, which, in essence, would carve an ontological gap between fact and value. So, on the non-cognitivist reading, there are facts, which are those things that our beliefs aim to represent in some way, and there are values, which are products of our faculty of moral sentiment.

It should be noted, however, that the non-cognitivist reading of Hume is something that is no longer taken for granted, given recent Hume scholarship (Radcliffe 2006).

In essence, this would carve an ontological gap between fact and value. So, on the non-cognitivist reading, there are facts, which are those things that our beliefs aim to represent in some way, and there are values, which are products of our faculty of moral sentiment.

The problem for people who employ this interpretation of the is-ought problem as an argument against evaluative positions they disagree with is that it is embedded in an interpretive framework that includes a non-cognitivist element as an overarching theme. For the most part, the people in popular circles that I’ve encountered using this argumentative strategy tend to have cognitivist sympathies, and with such sympathies come evaluative claims that are believed to be truth evaluable. Insofar as their opponents’ arguments are supposed to fall prey to this problem, so will theirs.

Logical Maneuvers:

There are various ways to respond to the orthodox version of the is-ought problem. The first way involves what could be deemed logical tricks. The first trick, originally from Arthur Prior, goes as follows:

P1. It’s raining outside.


C. Either it’s raining outside or you ought not to steal.

This is a valid deductive argument that employs disjunction introduction. Now, if you claim that this isn’t really getting an ought from an is because the conclusion isn’t really an statement with evaluative content, then this example will evade your concern,

P1*. It isn’t raining outside.

P2*. Either it isn’t raining outside or you ought not to steal.


C*. You ought not to steal.

If you claim that the conclusion of the first argument lacks evaluative content, then the second argument only employs non-evaluative premises (since P2* is assumed to be non-evaluative for the sake of argument) and gets you to the evaluative conclusion C*.

The second trick goes like this,

P1$. It is raining outside and it is not raining outside.


C$. You ought not to steal.

This is also a valid deductive argument that employs the principle that from a contradiction, anything follows. Start with (i) P and not-P, simplify to (ii) P, (iii) not-P. Apply disjunctive addition to (ii) and you can deduce (iv) P or Q. Disjunction elimination on (iii) and (iv) gets the conclusion Q (Joyce 153).

Another logical trick involves an appeal to authority, but it raises issues about what constitutes evaluative content. If you’re interested in that, you can read chapter seven of Armstrong’s book, Moral Skepticisms.

There are other, more complicated, attempts at bridging the inferential gap between is and ought, such as Toomas Karmo’s proof. Unfortunately, there is no space to give a sufficient explanation of his argument.

Robust Bridges:

A different sort of attempt at bridging the alleged gap involves more than just logical trickery. One problem people may raise about the previous solutions is that they don’t involve deductions from non-evaluative premises that produce genuine moral knowledge or justification. Mere disjunction introduction and explosion aren’t sufficient because one could replace the evaluative disjunct with any other evaluative disjunct without affecting the argument. So, a more robust inference from is to ought needs to be explored.

It could be useful to step back and rethink the framework in which we’re trying to understand the is-ought problem. If we think of the regress problem in the context of moral justification, then there are only a few non-skeptical solutions: (i) foundationalism, (ii) coherentism, (iii) infinitism, and (iv) inference from non-evaluative knowledge. Granting for the sake of argument that i-iii all fail to secure moral justification, we need to evaluative our fourth option. So, we can think of the is-ought gap as epistemic rather than ontic.

So, the problem becomes finding a way to make an inference from a body of non-evaluative knowledge to an evaluative conclusion such that the inference transfers justification or warrant from the body of knowledge to the evaluative conclusion.

There are quite a few attempts in the literature to provide such an inferential link, so the selection of views here is going to be, to some extent, arbitrary.

Searle’s Metalinguistic Argument:

The first attempt, a metalinguistic strategy, is found in the work of John Searle:

P1. Jones utters the words, “I hereby promise to pay you, Smith, five dollars.”

P2. Jones promised to pay smith five dollars.

P3. Jones placed himself under an obligation to pay Smith five dollars.

P4. Jones is under an obligation to pay Smith five dollars.


C. Jones ought to pay smith five dollars (Searle 1964).

Searle’s argument aims to bridge Hume’s chasm by employing what he calls, “institutional facts,” and other things being equal, it is an institutional fact that the utterance of, “I hereby promise to . . .” is a performative by virtue of which the utterer undertakes an obligation (Searle 1964). So, it seems as though the gap between is and ought is bridged by institutional facts. It also seems as though the moral regress problem is solved by the fourth option alluded to in the last section. We could infer evaluative conclusions with robust content from non-evaluative premises.

The main issue is that the argument fails to rule out moral skepticism and the error theory, so it fails as a means of obtaining moral knowledge and justification. To see how Searle’s argument fails, notice the distinction between purporting to undertake an obligation and actually undertaking an obligation. An illuminating analogy comes from Michael Huemer,

“. . . suppose you call me collect, and I agree to accept the charges, but due to a mistake, the phone company never actually charges me. My having “accepted” these charges does not entail that I ever actually receive the charges. In a similar sense, a person might conceivably “accept” an obligation without ever actually having the obligation” (Huemer 75).

Somebody may undertake an obligation in the weaker sense of just purporting to if there are no actual obligations or if nobody is ever actually obligated to do anything. In other words, if the error theory is true, then Jones only purports to undertake an obligation. The problem arises, then, because the argument fails to rule out that possibility; and any argument employed to vindicate moral knowledge that fails to rule out the possibility that we lack moral knowledge is a dialectical failure.

If one introduces additional premises to the effect that the argument rules out error theory and moral skepticism, then those premises will have evaluative content, which means that they must be justified, which then reintroduces the moral regress problem. The evaluative premises would also need to be justified by virtue of inference from some body of evaluative knowledge, given our rejection of the other non-skeptical solutions.

A second problem with Searle’s argument is the inference from P1 to P2. Such an inference presupposes a large body of background knowledge about the norms of the social context in which Jones is embedded (Huemer 75). On one reading, the constitutive facts of that knowledge would all be non-evaluative, but on another reading, they would not be.

There are two ways to understand the move from P1 to P2: the evaluative (internal) sense, and a non-evaluative (external) sense (Mackie 66-72). The external sense merely takes the move to be a descriptive account of a rule governing  Jone’s speech act under a linguistic institution. It would be as if an alien was evaluating the argument from outside the linguistic institution of promising. Such an alien would require an additional premise that says, if person utters, “I promise to X” within a particular linguistic institution, then that person has made a promise within that linguistic institution (James 154). But that rule would teach the alien a fact about the rules of a particular institution, such as a rule for moving chess pieces across a board. It becomes a description of what Jones ought to do within that particular institution, not what Jones ought to do, full stop (James 154-155).

Viewed from the inside, Jones is surely obligated to pay his debt, but from the outside, it’s merely a statement of fact about particular linguistic conventions. The problem is, though, that when viewed from inside the institution of promising, the argument requires an additional inferential rule to secure the conclusion.

In other words, there is a dilemma for Searle’s argument. If we view it from the outside, then the conclusion is merely a brute fact, and we haven’t really gotten an ought from an is. If we view it from inside the institution, then the argument requires an additional premise in the form of an inference rule that says if one utters, “I promise to do X,” then one ought to conclude that that person promised to do X (James 157). But that is a rule which tells us what we ought to do, and as such is subject to the same requirement of justification as any other normative statement, thus restarting the regress. Evaluating the argument from within the institution, then, requires accepting particular normative statements (James 157). So, on the internal reading, Searle’s argument fails to solve the moral regress problem, and the external reading doesn’t even interact with it.

So, we’ve gone over Searle’s argument and found that it doesn’t provide a means to end the regress problem; but that doesn’t render the entire strategy bankrupt, as there are more promising metalinguistic arguments, such as Jesse Prinz’s. Also, it should be noted that Searle did not intend for the argument to be employed as a solution to the moral regress problem. Searle saw his argument as an example of how one might bridge the deductive is-ought gap by way of institutional facts and the notion of speech acts (Searle 1964). I merely used it as a means of illustrating one way the metalinguistic strategy for ending the regress problem for moral justification may be developed.

Geach’s Attempt:

The next argument is from Peter Geach,

P1. If Evan were to promise to adopt some practice he would adopt it.

P2. If Evan were to utter sentence W, he would be promising to adopt the practice of doing something wrong twice a day.

P3. Nobody should adopt the practice of doing something wrong twice a day.


C1. If Evan were to utter W, he would adopt the practice of doing something wrong twice a day.


C2. Evan should not utter W (Geach 1977; Huemer 2005).

The first thing to note about this argument is that premise three has evaluative content. Geach claims that the third premise is analytically true (Geach 1977). So, if the argument was successful, it would bridge the is-ought gap by virtue of an analytic truth that would be known by grasping the content of the proposition being expressed; in other words, understanding the content would just be acquaintance with its truth conditions.

The problem is that this would be to smuggle in a moral epistemology insofar as there is some account of grasping the content of the analytic moral proposition that doesn’t rely on the fourth solution to the moral regress problem. If it relied on the fourth account of the structure of moral justification, then it would merely push the problem back a step.

If premise three requires an account of content-grasping for its justification that makes use of moral foundationalism, infinitism, or coherentism, then it merely assumes that there is no gap by virtue of adopting a solution in which it cannot be formulated.  In other words, the epistemic gap only makes sense given the fourth solution to the regress problem, so adopting another solution changes the subject.

Another problem is that the argument is invalid. The inference from P3 to C1 is valid just if,

P1*. S ought not to do A.

P2. If S did B, S would do A.


C*. S ought not to do B.

is a valid form of inference (Huemer 77). An example that illustrates the invalidity of the above inference form is provided by Huemer,

“John is a judge about to pass sentence on Mary, a convicted marijuana dealer. Mary’s crime is minor at worst; John, however, has an intense, irrational hatred for all drug users, as a result of which he is determined to sentence Mary to either life imprisonment or death. He could sentence Mary to only a brief prison term, but he would not in fact do so. Now consider the following inference:

P1$. John ought not to sentence Mary to life imprisonment.

P2$. If John were to refrain from sentencing Mary to death, then he would sentence Mary to life imprisonment.


C$. John ought not to refrain from sentencing Mary to death” (Huemer 77).

It seems obvious that P1$ is true given the fact that John could sentence her to a minor term, assuming we put aside the regress problem for the sake of argument. P2$ is stipulated as a fact about John’s psychology. However, the conclusion is clearly false (Huemer 77). So, the argument form is invalid.

A third problem with the argument is that P1 is evaluative (Huemer 77). The premise goes like this,

(∀x) (Evan promises to do x > Evan does x)

The evaluative nature of the premise can be revealed by substituting “act wrongly” for x.

Evan promises to act wrongly > Evan acts wrongly

Once more, I’ll draw from Huemer to illustrate this point,

“. . . once we fix the natural facts about how Evan would behave upon making such a promise, whether the whole sentence is true then depends on whether the behavior would be wrong” (Huemer 78).

Let’s say that if Evan promised to act wrongly, he would rob a bank and go for a walk. The facts about what Evan would do are fixed, but the whole sentence is true just if the things he would do if he made such a promise are actually wrong (Huemer 78). So, the truth conditions for P1 are such that P1 is true if and only if some evaluative state of affairs obtains.

It seems as though Geach’s argument fails to provide a means of overcoming the regress problem due to the problems explored above.

The Naturalist’s Alternative:

The next attempt at providing a means of making the fourth solution to the regress problem work is more indirect. So far, we’ve only looked at attempts that aimed at establishing evaluative knowledge through deduction from non-evaluative premises. But what if being unable to establish an ought by deducing it from non-evaluative premises isn’t that interesting? For instance,

P1. My glass contains the liquid H2O.

P2. I am about to drink the liquid in my glass.


C. I am about to drink water.

This argument is invalid by Tarskian standards because a translation of the argument into predicate calculus would allow for models where P1 and P2 are true but C is false (Joyce 154).

However, we don’t deny that we can have knowledge of the molecular structure of the liquid in my glass, despite the invalidity of such arguments. Perhaps something analogous holds for the nature of normativity. To further illustrate the point, the worldview that physics gives us clearly allows for biological facts without the need for us to be able to deduce such facts from propositions about fundamental particles, fields, and the laws of nature (Joyce 154). So, a moral naturalist who is of the non-reductivist or synthetic reductivist stripe has room to maneuver insofar as she can show that the is-ought gap is as uninteresting as the H2O-water gap and the physics-biology gap.

One avenue for the moral naturalist is inference to the best explanation. For example, perhaps the best explanation for Hitler’s behaviors during WW2 and prior is that Hitler had a morally depraved character. The fact that Hitler was morally depraved or vicious (along with non-evaluative background knowledge) best explains his actions, or so this form of reasoning goes. So, the explanation of Hitler’s actions makes them more probable than without the explanation, or with an alternative explanation.

Another way to think about it is in terms of a hypothesis making certain observations more expected than they otherwise would be. Some thinkers such as Nick Sturgeon adopt this strategy. The merits of abduction applied to evaluative knowledge cannot be assessed here, since the post would become too lengthy and disjointed. Suffice it to say, however, that the Sturgeon strategy involves conceptions of explanation that are controversial.


There are several other attempts to bridge the is-ought gap that were not explored here. I will assess them over the course of several future posts. Also, the Sturgeon explanatory strategy will be explored in the future, as will alternative ways to interpret Hume’s is-ought thesis, and my own solution to the moral regress problem. So far, the prospects for the fourth solution to the regress problem seem dim. However, there may be options for those who wish to endorse the fourth solution that are more satisfactory than the ones explored here.

Works Cited:

Cohon, Rachel, “Hume’s Moral Philosophy”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.

Geach, P. T. “Again the Logic of ‘Ought’.” Philosophy: 473. Print.

Huemer, Michael. Ethical Intuitionism. Basingstoke England: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. Print.

Hume, David, and Mary J. Norton. A Treatise of Human Nature: A Critical Edition. Oxford: Clarendon, 2007. Print.

James, Scott M. An Introduction to Evolutionary Ethics. Chichester, West Sussex, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011. Print.

Joyce, Richard. The Evolution of Morality. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT, 2006. Print.

Mackie, J. L. Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977. Print.

Radcliffe, Elizabeth S. “Moral Internalism and Moral Cognitivism in Hume’s Metaethics.” Synthese (2006): 353-70. Print.

Searle, John R. “How to Derive “Ought” From “Is”” The Philosophical Review: 43. Print.

How to Solve the Input Problem for Coherentism

Coherence theories of justification all face several well-known objections. While I believe that these objections all center around a common theme, that’s for another post. In this one, I’m going to discuss the input problem and how a coherence theory can overcome it.

The input problem states that a coherence theory entails that justification supervenes onto the internal state of a doxastic system, where the internal state is coherence. This raises the question of what the world external to the system has to do with justification. It seems natural to think that justification of beliefs about the world external to those beliefs requires some input from the world. This is the essence of the input problem.

There are several arguments from prominent coherentists that seem to entail that the world external to the doxastic system cannot play an epistemic role in justifying the beliefs in the system. Instead, the external world is merely a causal factor. Humans see a table in front of them and that visual appearance causes them to form the belief “I see a table in front of me”. One famous argument is from Donald Davidson,

“The relation between a sensation and a belief cannot be logical, since sensations are not beliefs or other propositional attitudes. What then is the relation? The answer is, I think, obvious: the relation is causal. Sensations cause some beliefs and in this sense are the basis or ground of those beliefs. But a causal explanation of a belief does not show how or why the belief is justified” (Davidson 1986).

The argument is that appearances or sensations are not the sorts of things that can logically entail things, and the only things capable of conferring justification are things that have some propositional structure, or just some truth-evaluable content. So, the only role sensations can play is that of a cause of beliefs or other propositional attitudes.

A way for a coherentist to resist this line of reasoning is to recognize that appearances and other experience states have truth-evaluable content. While appearance states are not beliefs, they do have content that is capable of accuracy or error. Since they have content that’s truth-evaluable, there is nothing wrong with defining coherence as a relation between both beliefs and appearance states. This response leads to the best way for a coherentist to overcome the input objection.

Appearances are states that have contents about the world external to the subject. Since appearance states allow for content about the world into the system, they allow for a response to the input objection. The way that appearance states can play a role in the coherence theory is by way of INUS conditions (Kvanvig and Riggs 1992). J.L. Mackie introduced this notion in his famous analysis of causation. An INUS condition is an insufficient but necessary and non-redundant part of an overall unnecessary but sufficient condition. So, an INUS condition for some explosion was the presence of oxygen in the air at the time.

In the context of appearance states, they are an INUS condition for observational beliefs being justified. While some may hold that they are INUS conditions for all beliefs having such status, that’s unnecessary for the purpose of overcoming the input objection. For some observational belief P to have positive epistemic status, it’s necessary but insufficient that the subject be in some appearance state whose content is captured by the contents of the belief.

Seeing appearance states as INUS conditions solves the problem of input. This is not to imply that appearance states are things that are capable of being justified. Rather, they are necessary and non-redundant parts of an overall unnecessary but sufficient condition for some beliefs being justified. The objects of epistemic appraisal are not appearance states. However, they are necessary for observational beliefs being justified. So, the input problem is overcome, and coherentists can define coherence over appearance and other experiential states as well as beliefs.

Works Cited:

Davidson, Donald. (1986). “A Coherence Theory of Truth and Knowledge”. Truth and Interpretation: 307-319. Print.

Kvanvig, Jonathan L., and Wayne D. Riggs. (1992). “Can a Coherence Theory Appeal to Appearance States?” Philosophical Studies: 197-217. Print.