Coherence: Making our ideas consistent with each other

Coherence: Making our ideas consistent with each other

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“You’re wrong; it’s not the same thing at all.”

You press a friend on an inconsistency, some double standard that has him talking out of both sides of his mouth. He denies it and you’re left to wonder who’s right, him or you?

Well of course it depends. Maybe he is being consistent and his subtle reasoning is simply beyond you, or maybe he just doesn’t want to look at the conflict between two beliefs he embraces. If he’s a friend you don’t want to lose, you don’t press too hard.

In the pursuit of truth, there are two primary standards. One is correspondence — that your ideas are consistent with the evidence. The other is coherence — that your ideas are consistent with each other. We challenge each other on both correspondence and coherence. Challenging on correspondence, we say, “you’re not facing the evidence.” Challenging on coherence, we say, “you’re contradicting yourself.”

It’s generally easier to get people to face evidence than it is to get them to face their own double standards. If you pursue someone down the rabbit hole in an effort to nail down inconsistency, you’re likely to get lost, and your target is likely to get away with a dismissive, “I’m being consistent, you just don’t get it.” As an outsider, you’re more qualified to bring outside evidence to bear than you are to inventory inconsistencies inside someone’s mind.

There are taboos against confronting people on their inconsistencies. We talk about people’s inconsistencies a lot but mostly behind their backs. And we generally act as though our minds and everyone’s are perfectly coherent, or at least as though everyone holds coherency as a supreme value.

But how could we really? We accumulate our beliefs one by one. Before adding each new belief, we couldn’t possibly test it against everything we already believe. Some incoherence is inevitable.

Nonetheless, when we go spelunking around in our own minds, we generally find coherence. Maybe that’s because we’re careful to avoid looking directly at the inconsistencies. Straightening out our inconsistencies generally entails hard work and sacrifice. If you find a real inconsistency between two of your cherished beliefs, you may have to give one of them up.

We’re all a little reluctant to do the hard work of cleaning up our double standards, but some of us are less reluctant than others. Some of us even cultivate a countervailing enthusiasm for discovering our own double standards. We’re still troubled by them, but we’ve discovered that approaching rather than avoiding them, and doing the hard work necessary to resolve them rather than the easy work of papering over them, often pays off in new wisdom — beliefs that more accurately correspond to the universe we live in.