Skip to main content

Explanationist aid for phenomenal conservatism


Phenomenal conservatism is a popular theory of epistemic justification. Despite its popularity and the fact that some think that phenomenal conservatism can provide a complete account of justification, it faces several challenges. Among these challenges are the need to provide accounts of defeaters and inferential justification. Fortunately, there is hope for phenomenal conservatism. Explanationism, the view on which justification is a matter of explanatory considerations, can help phenomenal conservatism with both of these challenges. The resulting view is one that respects the internalist character of phenomenal conservatism and its motivating intuitions while providing an intuitive and elegant account of both inferential justification and the justificatory impact of defeaters.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  1. 1.

    From this point on I will drop the qualifier “epistemic”. However, any time I mention “justification” or one of its cognates I am referring to epistemic justification.

  2. 2.

    Huemer (2014).

  3. 3.

    Moretti (2015, p. 296).

  4. 4.

    See Huemer (2001) concerning PC and external world skepticism, Huemer (2005) concerning PC and moral skepticism, and Huemer (2001, 2007, 2011) for arguments that denying PC is self-defeating.

  5. 5.

    Huemer (2014).

  6. 6.

    For example, Conee (2013), DePoe (2011), Hasan (2013), and Markie (2013) argue that PC is not the only theory that can avoid self-defeat.

  7. 7.

    See Huemer (2014) and the papers collected in Tucker (2013b) for discussion of some of the primary objections to PC.

  8. 8.

    PC, as it has been presented in the literature, is only an account of propositional justification (when S has justification for believing that p). It is not an account of doxastic justification (when S’s belief that p is justified). Supporters of PC will readily admit that in order for S to have a justified belief that p she must have propositional justification for believing that p, and she must base her belief on her propositional justification in the appropriate way. Hence, in addition to needing modification to account for defeaters and inferential justification, PC also needs to be supplemented with an account of the basing relation in order to be a full account of doxastic justification. For the present purpose there is no need to dwell on PC’s need for an account of the basing relation though because PC seems consistent with the major views on the nature of the basing relation. So, once PC has been modified to be a complete account of propositional justification, it is likely that there will not be any great difficulties in adding a basing requirement and arriving at an account of doxastic justification. In the cases that will be discussed below, it can simply be assumed that the subject meets the requirements for properly basing her belief on her propositional justification. For more on the basing relation see Evans (2013) and McCain (2012b).

  9. 9.

    Huemer (2007, p. 30) See Pryor (2000) for a similar view restricted to perceptual justification. See Huemer (2001) and Tucker (2010) for similar formulations of PC.

  10. 10.

    Tucker (2013a, pp. 3–6).

  11. 11.

    See Moretti (2015) and Tucker (2013a, b) for further discussion of these views.

  12. 12.

    Moretti (2015) Not only is this the most popular account of seemings, there is reason to think that versions of PC that do not accept the Experience View of seemings face a version of the isolation objection that is often pressed against coherentism. See McCain (manuscript) for more on the isolation objection and PC.

  13. 13.

    This is a plausible understanding of the position of Huemer (2001), and it is explicitly defended in McAllister (2016). Also see Conee (2004) for consideration of such a view without explicit endorsement.

  14. 14.

    See footnotes 5 and 7 concerning PC and self-defeat. See Tucker (2010) for explicit endorsement of the idea that only seemings provide justification.

  15. 15.

    For discussion of the nature of defeaters in general and the distinction between rebutting and undercutting defeaters see Pollock and Cruz (1999).

  16. 16.

    This sort of case seems possible as long as not every belief has an accompanying seeming—something that supporters of PC should grant unless they want to risk PC collapsing into a more general epistemic conservatism (the view that merely holding a belief provides justification for that belief). For discussion of the relation between PC and epistemic conservatism see Hanna (2011) and McCain (2012a). See Christensen (1994) and McCain (2008) for critical discussions of epistemic conservatism.

  17. 17.

    For discussion of how being disposed to recall something as known can provide justification see Conee and Feldman (2011) and McCain (2014a, 2015d). For accounts of how testimony might directly justify a belief see the discussion of anti-reductionist views of testimony in Lackey (2008) and Lackey and Sosa (2006).

  18. 18.

    Bergmann (2006) argues explicitly for the conclusion that mere (unjustified) beliefs can be defeaters. Sturgeon (2014) also seems sympathetic to this understanding of defeaters.

  19. 19.

    See Markie (2013) and McGrath (2013).

  20. 20.

    McCain (2014a).

  21. 21.

    Huemer (2016, p. 151).

  22. 22.

    Huemer (2016, p. 152).

  23. 23.

    Moretti (2015, p. 296) Importantly, this hybrid account has at least one advantage over the account of inferential justification Huemer puts forward. Huemer’s account needs additional machinery in order to account for defeaters, but the hybrid account developed below accounts for both defeaters and inferential justification with the same explanationist machinery.

  24. 24.

    Conee and Feldman (2008), McCain (2013, 2014a, b, 2015c), and Poston (2014) have each recently defended versions of explanationism. Prior to these recent developments, explanationism has been largely out of the spotlight since the late 1980s when Harman (1986) (expanding on his 1973 defense of an explanationist view), Lycan (1988), and Moser (1989) defended explanationist theories.

  25. 25.

    McCain (2015c, p. 339) This is a slight modification of the basic formulation of the explanationist theory of propositional justification that I defend elsewhere (2013, 2014a, b). The primary difference is that in this latest version of my explanationist theory of propositional justification I replace “logical consequence” with “explanatory consequence”. The other main difference between the various formulations that I put forward in these works is that in my (2013) I refer to this account of propositional justification as “Explanationist Evidentialism”, but in my (2014a) the term “Explanationist Evidentialism” is reserved for the complete explanationist account of justification-one that accounts for both propositional and doxastic justification. In my (2014a) I call this component of the complete explanationist account of epistemic justification “Ex-EJ”. In my (2015c) I call the revised version of Ex-EJ presented in the main text above “Ex-EJ 2.0”.

  26. 26.

    McCain (2014a) defends an account of the basing relation and uses it in developing a full theory in that work, which I call “Explanationist Evidentialism”. This full theory is an account of well-founded belief (doxastic justification).

  27. 27.

    In fact, some explanationists (Poston 2014) argue that “explanation” is a primitive concept that cannot be given a full analysis at all. I remain neutral on this issue here.

  28. 28.

    Kim (1994, p. 68) For more on how this ecumenical approach captures the relations that the most prominent theories of explanation deem explanatory see McCain (2015b).

  29. 29.

    See Jenkins (2006, 2008), Lipton (2004), and Moser (1989).

  30. 30.

    McCain (2014a).

  31. 31.

    See Lipton (2004) and McCain (2014a) for further discussion.

  32. 32.

    McCain (2014a, p. 67) It is important to note that this does not require that S have concepts of “evidence” or things of that sort. All that is required is that S can have a seeming that p is part of the best answer to “why do I have this?” where “this” refers demonstratively to S’s evidence.

  33. 33.

    McCain (2015c, p. 339) Clearly, this account of availability with its appeal to seemings is at least somewhat amiable to PC.

  34. 34.

    See Schupbach and Sprenger (2011) and Strevens (2000).

  35. 35.

    Feldman and Conee (2001, p. 2).

  36. 36.

    One concern that I have, that is perhaps shared with others, with claiming that seemings exhaust one’s basic evidence is that it is likely that dispositional states are important components of one’s evidence. This may not be an issue if there can be dispositional seemings though—an idea that Huemer (2013) is at least willing to entertain.

  37. 37.

    It is worth mentioning that the idea that beliefs justified by seemings are evidence/justifiers is itself a modification of PC as it has been explicitly formulated in the literature.

  38. 38.

    This is, of course, setting aside concerns about skepticism. For reasons to think that our commonsense explanations are better than skeptical alternatives see McCain (2014a), Huemer (forthcoming), and Vogel (1990).

  39. 39.

    Moretti (2015, p. 296).

  40. 40.

    Although the cases discussed above concern perceptual beliefs and how defeaters can effect their justification, the account of defeaters offered by Ex-PC is perfectly general. Ex-PC can account for defeaters in all sorts of cases and with respect to all sorts of justification—introspective, memorial, and so on.

  41. 41.

    More precisely, since S is relying on her memory of her past observations, the idea, given Ex-PC, is that it seems to S that each raven she has observed was black. Part of the best explanation for this seeming is that it is true that every raven she observed was black. It is plausible that part of the best available explanation she has for why every raven she observed was black is that they are all black.

  42. 42.

    Moretti (2015, p. 296).

  43. 43.

    See Huemer (2014) and Moretti (2015) for discussion of these arguments. I do not detail the arguments and how Ex-PC is consistent with them because doing so would take up a considerable amount of space and add complications that may distract from the primary focus of the present work. Additionally, it is not difficult to see that Ex-PC is consistent with these arguments when one examines them.


  1. Bergmann, M. (2006). Justification without awareness: A defense of epistemic externalism. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  2. Christensen, D. (1994). Conservatism in epistemology. Nous, 28, 69–89.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Conee, E. (2004). First things first. In E. Conee & R. Feldman (Eds.), Evidentialism (pp. 11–36). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  4. Conee, E. (2013). Seeming evidence. In C. Tucker (Ed.), Seemings and justification: New essays on dogmatism and phenomenal conservatism (pp. 52–70). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  5. Conee, E., & Feldman, R. (2008). Evidence. In Q. Smith (Ed.), Epistemology: New essays (pp. 83–104). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  6. Conee, E., & Feldman, F. (2011). Replies. In T. Dougherty (Ed.), Evidentialism and its discontents (pp. 283–323). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

  7. DePoe, J. (2011). Defeating the self-defeat argument for phenomenal conservatism. Philosophical Studies, 152, 347–359.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Evans, I. (2013). The problem of the basing relation. Synthese, 190, 2943–2957.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Feldman, R., & Conee, E. (2001). Internalism defended. American Philosophical Quarterly, 38, 1–18.

    Google Scholar 

  10. Hanna, N. (2011). Against phenomenal conservatism. Acta Analytica, 26, 213–221.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Harman, G. (1973). Thought. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  12. Harman, G. (1986). Change in view. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    Google Scholar 

  13. Hasan, A. (2013). Phenomenal conservatism, classical foundationalism, and internalist justification. Philosophical Studies, 162, 119–141.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Huemer, M. (2001). Skepticism and the veil of perception. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

    Google Scholar 

  15. Huemer, M. (2005). Ethical intuitionism. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  16. Huemer, M. (2007). Compassionate phenomenal conservatism. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 74, 30–55.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Huemer, M. (2009). Explanationist aid for the theory of inductive logic. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 60, 345–375.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Huemer, M. (2011). Phenomenal conservatism and self-defeat: A reply to DePoe. Philosophical Studies, 156, 1–13.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Huemer, M. (2013). Phenomenal conservatism uber alles. In C. Tucker (Ed.), Seemings and justification: New essays on dogmatism and phenomenal conservatism (pp. 328–350). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  20. Huemer, M. (2014). Phenomenal conservatism. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved, from

  21. Huemer, M. (2016). Inferential appearances. In B. Coppenger & M. Bergmann (Eds.), Intellectual assurance: Essays on traditional epistemic internalism (pp. 144–160). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

  22. Huemer, M. Forthcoming. Serious theories and skeptical theories: Why you are probably not a brain in a vat. Philosophical Studies.

  23. Jenkins, C. S. (2006). Knowledge and explanation. Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 36, 136–164.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Jenkins, C. S. (2008). Grounding concepts: An empirical basis for arithmetical knowledge. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  25. Kim, J. (1994). Explanatory knowledge and metaphysical dependence. Philosophical Issues, 5, 51–69.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Lackey, J. (2008). Learning from words: Testimony as a source of knowledge. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  27. Lackey, J., & Sosa, E. (Eds.). (2006). The epistemology of testimony. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  28. Lipton, P. (2004). Inference to the best explanation (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  29. Lycan, W. (1988). Judgement and justification. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  30. Markie, P. (2013). Searching for true dogmatism. In C. Tucker (Ed.), Seemings and justification: New essays on dogmatism and phenomenal conservatism (pp. 248–269). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  31. McAllister, B. (2016). Common sense epistemology: A defense of seemings as evidence. PhD dissertation, Baylor University.

  32. McCain, K. (2008). The virtues of epistemic conservatism. Synthese, 164, 185–200.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  33. McCain, K. (2012a). Against Hanna on phenomenal conservatism. Acta Analytica, 27, 45–54.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. McCain, K. (2012b). The interventionist account of causation and the basing relation. Philosophical Studies, 159, 357–382.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. McCain, K. (2013). Explanationist evidentialism. Episteme, 10, 299–315.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. McCain, K. (2014a). Evidentialism and epistemic justification. New York, NY: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  37. McCain, K. (2014b). Evidentialism, explanationism, and beliefs about the future. Erkenntnis, 79, 99–109.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  38. McCain, K. (2015a). A new evil demon? No problem for moderate internalists. Acta Analytica, 30, 97–105.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  39. McCain, K. (2015b). Explanation and the nature of scientific knowledge. Science & Education, 24, 827–854.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  40. McCain, K. (2015c). Explanationism: Defended on all sides. Logos & Episteme, 6, 61–73.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  41. McCain, K. (2015d). No knowledge without evidence. Journal of Philosophical Research, 40, 369–376.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  42. McCain, K. Unpublished manuscript. An isolation objection to phenomenal conservatism.

  43. McGrath, M. (2013). Phenomenal conservatism and cognitive penetration: The ‘bad basis’ counterexamples. In C. Tucker (Ed.), Seemings and justification: New essays on dogmatism and phenomenal conservatism (pp. 225–247). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  44. Moretti, L. (2015). Phenomenal conservatism. Analysis, 75, 296–309.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  45. Moser, P. (1989). Knowledge and evidence. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  46. Pollock, J., & Cruz, J. (1999). Contemporary theories of knowledge (2nd ed.). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

    Google Scholar 

  47. Poston, T. (2014). Reason & explanation: A defense of explanatory coherentism. New York, NY: Palgrave-MacMillan.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  48. Pryor, J. (2000). The skeptic and the dogmatist. Nous, 34, 517–549.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  49. Schupbach, J., & Sprenger, J. (2011). The logic of explanatory power. Philosophy of Science, 78, 105–127.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  50. Strevens, M. (2000). Do large probabilities explain better? Philosophy of Science, 67, 366–390.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  51. Sturgeon, S. (2014). Pollock on defeasible reasons. Philosophical Studies, 169, 105–118.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  52. Tucker, C. (2010). Why open-minded people should endorse dogmatism. Philosophical Perspectives, 24, 529–545.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  53. Tucker, C. (2013a). Seemings and justification: An introduction. In C. Tucker (Ed.), Seemings and justification: New essays on dogmatism and phenomenal conservatism (pp. 1–32). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  54. Tucker, C. (Ed.). (2013b). Seemings and justification: new essays on dogmatism and phenomenal conservatism. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  55. Vogel, J. (1990). Cartesian skepticism and inference to the best explanation. Journal of Philosophy, 87, 658–666.

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


I am grateful to Blake McAllister, Matt Frise, Matt King, Jon Matheson, Andrew Moon, Ted Poston, Chris Tweedt, anonymous reviewers, and audiences at the 2015 Alabama Philosophical Society Meeting and the 2015 Southeast Epistemology Conference for helpful discussion and/or comments on earlier drafts.

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Kevin McCain.

Additional information

Huemer’s (2009) “Explanationist Aid for the Theory of Inductive Logic” inspired the title for this article. In that article Huemer, one of the chief proponents of PC, argues that explanationism can help make a probabilistic approach to the problem of induction successful. Here I will argue that explanationism can help make phenomenal conservatism more plausible.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

McCain, K. Explanationist aid for phenomenal conservatism. Synthese 195, 3035–3050 (2018).

Download citation


  • Epistemic justification
  • Explanation
  • Explanationism
  • Defeaters
  • Inferential justification
  • Phenomenal conservatism