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The Problem Of Testimony

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Angela Wu

on 15 April 2010

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Transcript of The Problem Of Testimony

THE PROBLEM OF TESTIMONY The assertion of a declarative sentence by a speaker to a hearer. Think of all the things you know right now. What is our justification for forming our beliefs via the word of others? Testimony is the intentional transmission of information, whether verbally or through books, pictures, videos, and so on. Testimony is the assertion of a declarative sentence by a speaker to a hearer or to an audience. Testimony yields belief through both the testimony itself and one or more premises that support the proposition attested to or the attester’s credibility. TESTIMONY But what if the testimony is problematic? (i.e. false, misleading, erroneous)
assessing the speaker
coherence with other beliefs
cross-referencing But what if we are being universally deceived?
But aren't all our other beliefs or references also based upon testimony? The epistemological problem enters because we seem to have no ground for coming to these beliefs beyond the speaker's word. More specifically, we are unable to offer any independent grounds for a wide range of testimony-based beliefs that we hold, i.e. grounds which are not themselves simply other testimony-based beliefs. And unless we have some general entitlement to trust testimony, it then seems to follow that much of our knowledge is on a rather insecure footing. What reason, if any, is there for a hearer to take a speaker’s word? Reductionism and Credulism The justification of testimony always rests on non-testimonial evidence.
For one’s testimony-based belief to be rightly held, one needs further non-testimonial grounds for his belief; it is not enough that his justification for this belief is merely gained via testimony.

This approach is known as reductionism, since it tries to trace testimonial justification back to some non-testimonial justification and thereby ‘reduce’ testimonial justification to non-testimonial justification.

An example of such non-testimonial grounds include personal experience of the fact that the speaker is reliable, for example one might have observed on a number of occasions in the past that his person’s testimony has turned out to be true or you might be able to trace the genus of the speaker’s belief to a non-testimonial source e.g. reason or perception. In almost all instances of testimony too, perception is necessary for the formation of testimony-based beliefs since you cannot begin to form a belief based on testimony without first hearing or reading it REDUCTIONISM CREDULISM Reductionism appears able to overcome some initial objections to testimonial-based beliefs. We are justified, on reductionist counts, for those beliefs that we can verify for ourselves or those gained via the testimony of others if we can verify the reliability of these sources for ourselves. This is particularly so when it comes to ‘local’ (i.e. immediate, specific, particular) beliefs about our immediate environment.

Moreover, where we can’t personally verify ‘local’ claims, we can at least usually be sure that the speaker is generally reliable about ‘local’ matters like these because we have verified or experienced their credibility for ourselves. In addition, most of our beliefs in this respect will be true.

So our ‘local’ beliefs are ok, in reductionist lights, because you can recourse to some non-testimonial justification like your own perception or reason to justify your beliefs. Also, demands for justification can be satisfied if you can verify or identify or clarify some originating source or foundational source for the speaker’s testimony, given that these origins are acceptable. The problem with the reductionist view rears its head when it comes to our ‘non-local’ beliefs, such as whether the Earth is round. We seem unable to justify a belief like that for ourselves, without depending on some other testimonial-based belief.

And there is no natural reason why reliability of the speaker in local cases should extend to non-local matters.

The trouble is, of course, that we are unable to justify our testimony-based sources about non-local matters for ourselves. So while a lot of our testimony-based beliefs are in order, there is an important class of testimony-based beliefs that are problematic by reductionist lights because we have no independent grounds for them. The other response to this problem is to reject reductionism altogether and argue that we don’t always need to have further grounds for a testimony-based belief in order to justifiably hold it.

This approach favours a default position in favour of testimony-based beliefs such that they are justifiably held unless there is a special reason to doubt.
On this view, we are entirely justified in holding our beliefs until there is counter-evidence to call them into question. This approach may be more in accord with common sense. Under normal circumstances, the default position is to not doubt the knowledge we have and we only have to defeat relevant epistemic defeators but not all possible ones in the justification of our beliefs. The reductionist view is not empirically feasible or preferable! Plus, adopting the credulist position would mean that the many instances of testimony-based knowledge we typically accord ourselves can be considered knowledge. It’s all worked so far and it’s difficult for the reductionist to explain how the practice of testimony persists so robustly and has met with epistemic success. But the key objection to credulism is that it appears to essentially turn our naturally trusting nature into a virtue when it is not necessarily one. The point is this: perhaps we should be more suspicious about the information we receive, even though this would place a lot of restrictions on what we may justifiably believe. A suggestion to strengthen the credulist position has been to view testimony not so much as a source of knowledge and justification, but to consider testimony as an example of a reliable belief-forming process. On this reading, it is no longer that the justification for our testimony-based beliefs isn’t based on anything but that trusting testimony is, as matter of fact, a reliable way of forming our beliefs. How is testimony a way of forming beliefs? Remember that we said at the beginning that testimony yields belief through both the testimony itself and one or more premises that support the proposition attested to or the attester’s credibility. On this account, one example of testimony as a way of forming beliefs is that those beliefs about the attester’s credibility and beliefs pertinent to the attested proposition play a filtering role: they prevent our believing testimony that does not “pass”; but if no such difficulty strikes us, we accept in credulist fashion what is attested. So while we can’t offer independent non-testimonial reasons or evidence to justify our belief that the Earth is round, we can assert that one way of justifying that particular belief is that it was formed via a reliable process i.e. testimony. So to summarise, the key difference between reductionism and credulism is that reductionism asks for specific reasons to support our testimony-based beliefs while the credulist sees no need for reasons and the default position as one of acceptance until shown otherwise. There is really no reasons why we can’t justify our testimony-based beliefs both ways though; they’ve just always been presented as incompatible. How does testimony yield justification and knowledge? Condition 1: A speaker S asserts that p to a hearer H. Condition 2: One properly asserts that p only if one knows p. If these 2 conditions are present, it lends support to the view that testimony can transmit knowledge. When a speaker who knows that p asserts it, and the hearer accepts it accordingly, the speaker transmits his knowledge to the hearer. If S knows p and S asserts p to H, and H accepts p on the basis of S’s testimony, then H knows that p. I cannot give you testimony-based knowledge without having knowledge of it but I can give you justification without having justification (and even knowledge!) for it.
Testimony can produce in the hearer a justification for believing p but it does not convey the speaker’s justification for believing it – the speaker might not even have such justification.
The hearer can become justified on the basis of my asserting it, not because I have given him my justification for it in my asserting it but because of my sincerity and competence (these are the 2 dimensions of testimonial credibility when assessing speakers).
My testimony that p, then, gives you justification in the sense that p because Miss Wu is honest, functional, has normal vision and memory, was present and attentive but not p because VJC won the finals and Mr Tan has an exhibitionist habit.

To recap: testimony that p can convey the speaker’s knowledge that p; such knowledge is testimonially passed on by transmission and S does not need justification to pass it on. If I do not know that a proposition is true, my asserting it cannot transmit to you testimony-based knowledge that it is so since I have no knowledge to give here. But even if I am not justified in believing the proposition, my asserting it can provide you with justification for believing it. Testimony can generate justification but is not generative with respect to knowledge; it simply transmits it. Background conditions for accepting testimony Hearers don’t enter testimonial situations without any evidence or epistemic reasons to accept the speaker's word. These epistemic reasons, widely shared and easily known, derive chiefly from the background conditions of our testimonial practice. 1. The predominance of truthful testimony 2. Truthfulness as the norm 3. Reputation and sanctions 4. Shared sources and values Other issues:
Application to areas of knowledge (e.g. history) A social epistemology Testimony has often been disregarded partly because of a bias towards an individualist epistemology. It is seen as an inferior source of knowledge because the hearer believes without his own autonomous judgment of a proposition’s truth. Testimonial knowledge is highly and noticeably fallible and overtly social, and will at best, on that view, transmit knowledge, rather than playing a role in its discovery or generation. Were an ideal agent construed as a perfectly autonomous agent, he would know very little. Any realistic epistemology must admit that individuals are constrained in their inquiry by limits on time and resources. This calls for a division of epistemic labour. The worries over autonomy are only forceful in cases in which there is reason not to fully trust the judgments of others. Admittedly, of course, our enormous dependence on the testimony of others pays off only if the relevant social community functions well in regards to communication. A number of characteristic infirmities of social groups that undermine the transmission of good information also cause us to reconsider testimony as a reliable source of information. Social epistemologists argue that the possibility of the vast knowledge we gain from testimony depends essentially on our membership in an epistemic community. Take scientific practice, for example. In the long term, a social epistemology is self-correcting even if there are immediate problems with some of the epistemic practices involved in the process of knowledge construction. So testimony, as a social epistemology, ought to be given more credence and deserves proper investigation by us.
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