Coherence in Thought and Action

This week’s reading was Coherence in Thought and Action by Paul Thagard. I chose to read this book because it provides insight into a “naturalized epistemology” and sensemaking that will ground my work with SenseMaker and conflict resolution. Naturalized epistemology means that our ‘ways of knowing’ are limited by how our brains and bodies function. By taking the learnings from the natural sciences (i.e. neuroscience, biology, physics) we can ensure that our inquiries avoid cognitive traps and account for both the strengths and weaknesses of the human brain.

For example, one of these traps is “retrospective coherence” defined by Snowden as “attributing cause in cases where complex historical events represent a unique pattern that will only repeat by accident.”[1] Because humans are pattern-based animals, attributing cause comes naturally. This can become dangerous when the past events are used as a template for generating foresight. For peacebuilders, this is especially important because peace work is a balance between quickly understanding the disposition of a conflict system and taking action to stop violence. If a conflict resolution practitioner relies on experience of a past conflict or case study, then they risk applying the wrong strategy to the new context.

So back to Thagard and the relevance of the book for sensemaking. 

Thagard defines making sense as “the activity of fitting something puzzling into a coherent pattern of mental representations that include beliefs, goals, and actions.[2] The main focus of the book to define this coherence as a constraint satisfaction. As a philosopher, Thagard proposes a “cognitive naturalism approach” to philosophical problems because inference and decision-making are “not serial but “largely unconscious process in which many pieces of information are combined in parallel into a coherent whole.”[3] If this is how the human mind works, it seems foolish to claim that belief should be justified on a logical process where each link in reasoning is derived from a set of truth-tested propositions. Thagard defines philosophical problems as coherence problems where the solution (maximizing coherence) “is a matter of maximizing satisfaction of a set of positive and negative constraints.”[4] There is a positive constraint between elements that fit together (they are coherent) and a negative constraint when elements do not fit together (they are not coherent). When there is a negative constraint between elements, one of them has to be rejected to maintain coherence.  Based on these constraints, elements are then sorted into two sets- accepted and rejected- and the answer to the coherence problem is the distribution of the elements in this partition. To solve these coherence problems, Thagard takes a computational approach and outlines algorithms that could be used to calculate the solution that maximizes coherence. I don’t think that the computational approach will ever make sense for conflict resolution due to the amount of uncertainty about what important elements are, but theoretical approach can shape how conflict resolution practitioners try and change beliefs of people in conflict.  

Constraints come up frequently in the complexity world and it is important to distinguish Thagard’s definition from the way they are used by SenseMaker or Cynefin practitioners (my camp). I tend to think of constraints as connections between elements in a system or boundaries of the system. In complexity, a practitioner can change constraints to stimulate the emergence of a desired behavior or activity. There are many of Dave’s blogposts that do deeper dives into a theory of constraints that you can find in the notes of this post. In Coherence in Thought and Action constraints are defined as the degree of fit between elements in a coherence problem. 

What implications does cognitive naturalism have for conflict resolution? 

One strategy to make change in a complex system is to create a coherent portfolio of safe-to-fail probes (small, low-resource experiments). Safe-to-fail probes are a way to test relationships between elements in a complex system before investing resources in a large-scale intervention. If a probe shows promise, it can be scaled up, if not, then it can be scaled down or stopped. In a conflict context, this could mean testing a new narrative strategy with a social justice group, hosting an event to bring people together, or sharing a cluster of stories from SenseMaker data with different groups in parallel. “Solving” complex conflicts require actions at multiple levels in a system rather than investing in an all-encompassing peace deal (for example). Rather than making decisions based infallible information, we can begin to shift to thinking of coherence problems.  “Will this action facilitate a better understanding of the conflict I’m working in and thereby move the system toward a more desirable place.” We can determine if an action actually helps achieve a goal through “explanatory coherence” or “Does this make sense?” Joint action in a portfolio of safe-to-fail interventions could be considered coherent if there is a plausible theory of change behind each one. 

What does coherence mean for this type of intervention strategy? If people have contradictory ideas for experiments based on different theories of change, how can that be accommodated in the portfolio? Here, Thagard’s discussion of the coherence problems democratic deliberation and practical reasoning can be useful. Thagard says, “The elements in deliberative coherence are actions and goals, and the primary positive constraint is facilitation: if an action facilitates a goal, then there is a positive constraint between them.”[5] In a sense, a safe-to-fail portfolio is a bounded coherence problem- contradictory theories of change can be tested in a safe-to-fail portfolio and then accepted or rejected based on if the system empirically demonstrates that the action facilitates movement toward a desirable goal. The “accepted actions” that seem to be most coherent can then be scaled up. 


This book was helpful in understanding some alternative interpretations of coherence, constraints and the meaning of a “naturalized approach.” As I continue developing the conflict resolution methodology with SenseMaker, the connection between philosophy and psychology are areas that will need to be strengthened to justify my approach. I’m at a stage where I’m familiar with the words and their basic usages, but still grasping at a detailed understanding. At any rate, I hope this post is intelligible! 

This week I’ll be reading “Decision-making under Deep Uncertainty” which I think will carry through similar themes. In next week’s post, I’ll be reflecting on the implications of that book for decision-making and “complexity-informed conflict resolution strategies” and how SenseMaker can potentially help.

Works Cited

Snowden, David. “Naturalizing Sensemaking.” Informed by Knowledge: Expert Performance in Complex Situations, 2010, 223–34.

Thagard, Paul. Coherence in Thought and Action. Reprint edition. A Bradford Book, 2002.

[1] David Snowden, “Naturalizing Sensemaking,” Informed by Knowledge: Expert Performance in Complex Situations, 2010, 223–34.227. 

[2] Paul Thagard, Coherence in Thought and Action, Reprint edition (A Bradford Book, 2002). xi.

[3] Thagard. 3.

[4] Thagard. 16.

[5] Thagard.127.